Apoptosis is a morphologically defined type of cell death associated with the activation of certain proteases belonging to the ICE/CED-3 family, known as caspases. Resistance to apoptosis has been implicated as one of the mechanisms that participates in oncogenesis. We found that the broad-spectrum peptide inhibitor of the caspases, zVAD-fmk, interferes in a dose-dependent way with all the morphological and biochemical changes associated with apoptosis induced by anti-CD95 mAb, staurosporine, VP-16 and Act-D. However, with the exception of anti-CD95-triggered apoptosis, the insulted cells lost their clonogenic potential, even when pre-treated with a high dose of zVAD-fmk. Under these circumstances, the dying cells displayed no signs of apoptosis, including activation of caspases, externalization of phosphatidylserine, nuclear condensation, or DNA fragmentation. Instead, this cell death was characterized by cytoplasmic and nuclear vacuolization followed by the loss of plasma membrane integrity. Thus, preventing the onset of apoptosis by blocking caspase activity did not rescue cells from dying in response to drugs such as staurosporine, VP-16 and Act-D. In comparison, ectopic expression of anti-apoptotic oncogenes such as bcl-2 and bcr-abl not only inhibited apoptosis but also preserved the clonogenic potential of the cells. Therefore, oncogenesis is promoted not by simply interfering with caspase-mediated apoptosis, but by preventing an upstream event which we define as the commitment point for cell death.