The apoptotic signal triggered by ligation of members of the death receptor family is promoted by sequential activation of caspase zymogens. We show here that in a purified system, the initiator caspases-8 and -10 directly process the executioner pro-caspase-3 with activation rates (kcat/Km) of 8.7 x 10(5) and 2.8 x 10(5) M-1 s-1, respectively. These rates are of sufficient magnitude to indicate direct processing in vivo. Differentially processed forms of caspase-3 that accumulate during its activation have similar rates of activation, activities, and specificities. The pattern and rate of caspase-8 induced activation of pro-caspase-3 in cytosolic extracts was the same as in a purified system. Moreover, immunodepletion of a putative intermediary in the pathway to activation, pro-caspase-9, was without consequence. Taken together these data demonstrate that the initiator caspase-8 can directly activate pro-caspase-3 without the requirement for an accelerator. The in vitro data thus help to deconvolute previous in vivo transfection studies which have debated the role of a direct versus indirect transmission of the apoptotic signal generated by ligation of death receptors.