To mimic the injection of granzymes into target cells by cytotoxic lymphocytes or the activation of endogenous proteases in programmed cell death, the proteases chymotrypsin, proteinase K, or trypsin were loaded into the cytoplasm of several different cell types using the osmotic lysis of pinosomes technique. Internalization of these proteases caused cell lysis within several hours, accompanied by extensive nuclear damage in most but not all combinations of target cells and proteases. This nuclear damage, quantitated by DNA release from nuclei, was associated with apoptotic features including DNA fragmentation into nucleosomal ladders, chromatin condensation, nuclear fragmentation, and membrane blebbing. Agents reported to block programmed cell death, including aurintricarboxylic acid, inhibitors of energy metabolism, and protein or RNA synthesis, failed to block this protease-induced death, although some inhibited nuclear damage. In separate experiments, introduction of staphylococcal nuclease into cells led to near complete (at least 75% of total) nucleosomal DNA fragmentation within 6 to 8 h. Condensation of chromatin did not accompany this fragmentation to the same extent, and there was approximately a 10-h lag between half-maximal DNA fragmentation and 50% loss of membrane integrity. The results suggest that activation of intracellular proteases during cell death by any molecular pathway could give rise to apoptotic morphology and DNA fragmentation.