Infection with mouse hepatitis virus strain 3 (MHV-3) results in lethal fulminant hepatic necrosis in fully susceptible BALB/c mice compared to the minimal disease observed in resistant strain A/J mice. Macrophages play a central role in the pathogenesis of MHV-3-induced hepatitis. In the present study we have shown that MHV-3 infection of macrophages induces these cells to undergo apoptosis. Three methods to detect apoptosis were applied: flow cytometry analysis of nuclear DNA content, fluorescence microscopic visualization of apoptotic cells labeled by the TUNEL assay, and gel electrophoresis to detect DNA laddering. Apoptosis in A/J and BALB/c macrophages was first detected at 8 h postinfection (p.i.) and reached a maximum by 12 h p.i. The degree of MHV-3-induced apoptosis was much greater in A/J-derived macrophages than in BALB/c-derived cells. Apoptosis was inversely correlated with the development of typical MHV cytopathology, namely syncytia formation. Infected macrophages from A/J mice did not form synctia in contrast to the extensive synctia formation observed in BALB/c-derived macrophages. In MHV-3-infected BALB/c macrophage cultures, apoptotic cells were not incorporated into syncytia. Apoptosis was also inversely correlated with the expression of MHV-3-induced fgl2 prothrombinase in macrophages. These results add the murine coronavirus MHV-3 to the list of RNA-containing viruses capable of inducing apoptosis.