Initiation of apopotosis requires the conversion of procaspases to mature caspases. Here we show that oligomerization of pro-caspases is sufficient to induce proteolytic generation of mature caspase subunits and activation of their cell death activity. Deletion of the protein interaction motif DED from pro-caspase-8 greatly suppresses its apoptotic activity. Cell death activity can be restored by oligomerization of pro-caspase-8 protease domains by two heterologous inducible oligomerization systems. Induced oligomerization also activates the apoptotic activity of pro-caspase-1 but not pro-caspase-3. In vitro, oligomerization leads to pro-caspase processing to from the mature caspase subunits; this processing requires the intrinsic caspase activity of zymogens and proceeds via a novel order of cleavage events.