Cell-matrix interactions have major effects upon phenotypic features such as gene regulation, cytoskeletal structure, differentiation, and aspects of cell growth control. Programmed cell death (apoptosis) is crucial for maintaining appropriate cell number and tissue organization. It was therefore of interest to determine whether cell- matrix interactions affect apoptosis. The present report demonstrates that apoptosis was induced by disruption of the interactions between normal epithelial cells and extracellular matrix. We have termed this phenomenon "anoikis." Overexpression of bcl-2 protected cells against anoikis. Cellular sensitivity to anoikis was apparently regulated: (a) anoikis did not occur in normal fibroblasts; (b) it was abrogated in epithelial cells by transformation with v-Ha-ras, v-src, or treatment with phorbol ester; (c) sensitivity to anoikis was conferred upon HT1080 cells or v-Ha-ras-transformed MDCK cells by reverse- transformation with adenovirus E1a; (d) anoikis in MDCK cells was alleviated by the motility factor, scatter factor. The results suggest that the circumvention of anoikis accompanies the acquisition of anchorage independence or cell motility.