The bcl-2 gene can potentially encode 26- and 22-kDa proteins that differ only in their carboxyl tails because of an alternative splicing mechanism. The larger of these proteins contains a hydrophobic transmembrane domain within its carboxyl terminus, resides (at least in part) in mitochondrial membranes and has been shown to prolong cell survival by blocking programmed cell death (also termed "apoptosis"). To explore the function of the shorter 22-kDa Bcl-2 protein that lacks a transmembrane domain, DNAs encoding p26-Bcl-2-alpha or p22-Bcl-2-beta were expressed in an interleukin-3 (IL-3)-dependent hematopoietic cell line 32D. In contrast to p26-Bcl-2 alpha that markedly prolonged cell survival, p22-Bcl-2-beta did not extend the survival of 32D cells when cultured in the absence of IL-3. Expression in 32D cells of a chimeric DNA that fused portions of the open reading frame common to Bcl-2-alpha and Bcl-2-beta (amino-acids 1-195) with sequences encoding the transmembrane and cytosolic domains of the IL-2 receptor-alpha protein resulted in production of a Bcl-2/IL-2R fusion protein that was capable of prolonging 32D cell survival in the setting of IL-3 withdrawal. Based on fractionation of cells to produce crude heavy membrane, light membrane, nuclei, and cytosolic preparations, much of the p22-Bcl-2-beta protein appeared to reside in the cytosol, whereas Bcl-2-alpha and the Bcl-2/IL-2R chimeric proteins were found exclusively in fractions that also contained the inner mitochondrial membrane protein F1-beta-ATPase. Taken together, these findings demonstrate the importance of membrane association for the function and intracellular targeting of the apoptosis-blocking Bcl-2 protein. Furthermore, despite the strong evolutionary conservation of the carboxyl regions of Bcl-2-alpha proteins observed previously for mammalian and avian species, these data suggest that a heterologous transmembrane domain can be substituted without loss of function.