The vaccinia virus E3L gene codes for double-stranded RNA (dsRNA) binding proteins which can prevent activation of the dsRNA-dependent, interferon-induced protein kinase PKR. Activated PKR has been shown to induce apoptosis in HeLa cells. HeLa cells infected with vaccinia virus with the E3L gene deleted have also been shown to undergo apoptosis, whereas HeLa cells infected with wild-type vaccinia virus do not. In this report, using virus recombinants expressing mutant E3L products or alternative dsRNA binding proteins, we show that suppression of induction of apoptosis correlates with functional binding of proteins to dsRNA. Infection of HeLa cells with ts23, which leads to synthesis of increased dsRNA at restrictive temperature, induced apoptosis at restrictive but not permissive temperatures. Treatment of cells with cytosine arabinoside, which blocks the late buildup of dsRNA in vaccinia virus-infected cells, prevented induction of apoptosis by vaccinia virus with E3L deleted. Cells transfected with dsRNA in the absence of virus infection also underwent apoptosis. These results suggest that dsRNA is a trigger that can initiate a suicide response in virus-infected and perhaps uninfected cells.