Mitochondria play a central role in apoptosis through release of cytochrome c and activation of caspases. In the present study, we showed that, in Jurkat human T cells, camptothecin-induced apoptosis is preceded by (i) an increase in cytochrome c and subunit IV of cytochrome c oxidase (COX IV) levels in mitochondria; and (ii) an elevation of the mitochondrial membrane potential (Delta(Psi)m). These events are followed by cytochrome c release into the cytosol, cytochrome c and COX IV depletion from mitochondria, externalization of phosphatidylserine (PS), disruption of Delta(Psi)m, caspase activation, poly(ADP-ribose)polymerase cleavage and DNA fragmentation. The pan-caspase inhibitor z-VAD.fmk blocked camptothecin-induced PS externalization, disruption of Delta(Psi)m and DNA fragmentation, suggesting that these events are mediated by caspase activation. In contrast, z-VAD did not prevent cytochrome c release, despite preventing cytochrome c and COX IV depletion from mitochondria. Together, these data suggest that mitochondrial cytochrome c and COX IV enrichment are early events preceding the onset of apoptosis and that cytochrome c release is upstream of caspase activation and loss of Delta(Psi)m. Furthermore, prevention by z-VAD of cytochrome c and COX IV depletion in mitochondria suggests the possibility that a caspase-like activity in mitochondria is involved in the proteolytic depletion of respiratory chain proteins. Activation of this activity may play an important role in drug-induced apoptosis.