Bcl-2 and related cytoplasmic proteins are key regulators of apoptosis, the cell suicide program critical for development, tissue homeostasis, and protection against pathogens. Those most similar to Bcl-2 promote cell survival by inhibiting adapters needed for activation of the proteases (caspases) that dismantle the cell. More distant relatives instead promote apoptosis, apparently through mechanisms that include displacing the adapters from the pro-survival proteins. Thus, for many but not all apoptotic signals, the balance between these competing activities determines cell fate. Bcl-2 family members are essential for maintenance of major organ systems, and mutations affecting them are implicated in cancer.