This study was undertaken to examine the role of proteases in etoposide-induced apoptosis of human leukemia HL-60 cells. We found the potent activity to produce internucleosomal DNA fragmentation in a 150 000 g supernatant of cell lysate which was prepared from etoposide-treated HL-60 cells undergoing apoptosis. This nuclear-DNA fragmenting activity could be detected when the supernatant was incubated with isolated nuclei under Mg2+-dependent conditions. On the other hand, we could not detect such activity in the supernatant of cell lysate from non-treated HL-60 cells. Treatment of the supernatant with a serine protease inhibitor, N-tosyl-L-phenylala-nylchloromethyl ketone (TPCK), abolished the DNA fragmenting activity. An inhibitor of interleukin 1-beta-converting enzyme (ICE), Z-Val-Ala-Asp-fluoromethyl ketone (VAD-FMK), had no effect on this DNA fragmenting activity in vitro. However, when the cells were incubated with etoposide in the presence of VAD-FMK, the formation of TPCK-sensitive DNA fragmenting activity was blocked. Our data indicate that serine and ICE-like proteases may be involved in etoposide-induced apoptosis at the different stages, and especially a serine protease may be closely associated with the final step for induction of internucleosomal DNA fragmentation during apoptosis in HL-60 cells.