A growing body of evidence supports a role for mitochondria and mitochondria-derived factors in the cell death process. In particular, much attention has focused on cytochrome c, a key component of the electron transport chain, that has been reported to translocate from the mitochondria to the cytosol in cells undergoing apoptosis. The mechanism for this release is, as yet, unknown. Here we report that ectopic expression of Bax induces apoptosis with an early release of cytochrome c preceding many apoptosis-associated morphological alterations as well as caspase activation and subsequent substrate proteolysis, A loss of mitochondrial transmembrane potential was detected in vivo, although no mitochondrial swelling or loss of transmembrane potential was observed in isolated mitochondria treated with Bax in vitro. Caspase inhibitors, such as endogenous XIAP and synthetic peptide benzyloxycarbonyl-Val-Ala-Asp-fluoromethyl ketone (zVAD-fmk), although capable of altering the kinetics and perhaps mode of cell death, had no influence on this release, suggesting that if cytochrome c plays a role in caspase activation it must precede this step in the apoptotic process. Mitochondrial permeability transition was also shown to be significantly prevented by caspase inhibition, indicating that the translocation of cytochrome c from mitochondria to cytosol is not a consequence of events requiring mitochondrial membrane depolarization, In contrast, Bcl-xL was capable of preventing cytochrome c release while also significantly inhibiting cell death. It would therefore appear that the mitochondrial release of factors such as cytochrome c represents a critical step in committing a cell to death, and this release is independent of permeability transition and caspase activation but is inhibited by Bcl-xL.