Anucleate cells can be induced to undergo programmed cell death (PCD), indicating the existence of a cytoplasmic PCD pathway that functions independently from the nucleus. Cytoplasmic structures including mitochondria have been shown to participate in the control of apoptotic nuclear disintegration. Before cells exhibit common signs of nuclear apoptosis (chromatin condensation and endonuclease-mediated DNA fragmentation), they undergo a reduction of the mitochondrial transmembrane potential (delta psi m) that may be due to the opening of mitochondrial permeability transition (PT) pores. Here, we present direct evidence indicating that mitochondrial PT constitutes a critical early event of the apoptotic process. In a cell-free system combining purified mitochondria and nuclei, mitochondria undergoing PT suffice to induce chromatin condensation and DNA fragmentation. Induction of PT by pharmacological agents augments the apoptosis-inducing potential of mitochondria. In contrast, prevention of PT by pharmacological agents impedes nuclear apoptosis, both in vitro and in vivo. Mitochondria from hepatocytes or lymphoid cells undergoing apoptosis, but not those from normal cells, induce disintegration of isolated Hela nuclei. A specific ligand of the mitochondrial adenine nucleotide translocator (ANT), bongkreik acid, inhibits PT and reduces apoptosis induction by mitochondria in a cell-free system. Moreover, it inhibits the induction of apoptosis in intact cells. Several pieces of evidence suggest that the proto-oncogene product Bcl-2 inhibits apoptosis by preventing mitochondrial PT. First, to inhibit nuclear apoptosis, Bcl-2 must be localized in mitochondrial but not nuclear membranes. Second, transfection-enforced hyperexpression of Bcl-2 directly abolishes the induction of mitochondrial PT in response to a protonophore, a pro- oxidant, as well as to the ANT ligand atractyloside, correlating with its apoptosis-inhibitory effect. In conclusion, mitochondrial PT appears to be a critical step of the apoptotic cascade.