Genetic studies of the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans have defined a variety of single-gene mutations that have specific effects on programmed cell death. Analyses of the genes defined by these mutations have revealed that cell death is an active process that requires gene function in cells that die. Specific genes are required not only to cause cell death but also to protect cells from dying. Gene interaction studies have defined a genetic pathway for the execution phase of programmed cell death in C. elegans. Molecular and biochemical findings are consistent with the pathway proposed from these genetic studies and have also revealed that the protein products of certain cell-death genes interact directly. This pathway appears to be conserved among organisms as diverse as nematodes and humans. Important questions remain to be answered about programmed cell death in C. elegans. For example, how does a cell decide to die? How is cell death initiated? What are the mechanisms of action of the cell-death protector and killer genes? What genes lie downstream of the cell-death execution pathway? The conservation of the central cell-death pathway suggests that additional genetic analyses of programmed cell death in C. elegans will help answer these questions, not only for this nematode but also for other organisms, including ourselves.