Apoptosis is an essential and highly conserved mode of cell death that is important for normal development, host defense and suppression of oncogenesis. Faulty regulation of apoptosis has been implicated in degenerative conditions, vascular diseases, AIDS and cancer. Among the numerous proteins and genes involved, members of the Bcl-2 family play a central role to inhibit or promote apoptosis. In this article, we present up-to-date information and recent discoveries regarding biochemical functions of Bcl-2 family proteins, positive and negative interactions between these proteins, and their modification and regulation by either proteolytic cleavage or by cytosolic kinases, such as Raf-1 and stress-activated protein kinases. We have critically reviewed the functional role of caspases and the consequences of cleaving key substrates, including lamins, poly(ADP ribose) polymerase and the Rb protein. In addition, we have presented the latest Fas-induced signalling mechanism as a model for receptor-linked caspase regulation. Finally, the structural and functional interactions of Ced-4 and its partial mammalian homologue, apoptosis protease activating factor-1 (Apaf-1), are presented in a model which includes other Apafs. This model culminates in a caspase/Apaf regulatory cascade to activate the executioners of programmed cell death following cytochrome c release from the mitochondria of mammalian cells. The importance of these pathways in the treatment of disease is highly dependent on further characterization of genes and other regulatory molecules in mammals.