Research into apoptosis is proceeding at such a fast and ferocious pace that anyone who is not completely engrossed in the field has difficulty keeping track of the constant stream of newly identified proteins involved in the process. Apart from being an enticing concept, the process of cell suicide is an important function with wide-reaching implications. Virologists, biologists, immunologists, physiologists and oncologists alike have had to incorporate this phenomenon into their disciplines. The purpose of this article is to provide a solid background on which to further review recent advances in this exciting field. The Bcl-2 and caspase family homologues are discussed in detail and various models are proposed to explain how they function to regulate and execute the death programme. Finally, the importance of programmed cell death with respect to immune function is explored, emphasizing the targets of viral inhibitors of apoptosis.