The requirement for caspases (ICE-like proteases) were investigated in mediating apoptosis of WEHI7.2 mouse lymphoma cells in response to two death inducers with different mechanisms of action, the glucocorticoid hormone dexamethasone (DX) and the calcium-ATPase inhibitor thapsigargin (TG). Apoptosis induction by these agents followed different kinetics, and was closely correlated with in vivo activation of caspase-3 (CPP32/Yama/Apopain) and cleavage of the caspase target protein poly(ADP-ribose) polymerase (PARP). Caspase activation and PARP cleavage were inhibited by Bcl-2 overexpression. Cell extracts from DX- and TG-treated cells cleaved the in vitro synthesized baculovirus p35 ICE-like protease target, producing 25 and 10 kDa fragments. p35 cleavage was inhibited by mutating the active site aspartic acid to alanine, and by a panel of protease inhibitors that inhibit caspase-3-like proteases, including iodoacetamide, N-ethylmaleimide, and Ac-DEVD-cho. Treatment of cells in vivo with two cell permeant peptide fluoromethylketone inhibitors of caspase activity, Z-VAD-fmk and Z-DEVD-fmk, inhibited DX- and TG-induced apoptotic nuclear changes and maintained plasma membrane integrity, whereas the cathepsin inhibitor, Z-FA-fmk, and two calpain inhibitors failed to inhibit apoptosis. An unexpected observation was that due to the delayed time course of DX-induced apoptosis, optimal preservation of plasma membrane integrity was achieved by adding caspase inhibitors beginning 8 h after DX addition. In summary, the findings indicate that two diverse apoptosis-inducing signals converge into a common Bcl-2-regulated pathway that leads to caspase activation and apoptosis.