Lens apoptosis plays a central role in cavefish eye degeneration. Heat shock proteins (hsps) can regulate apoptosis; therefore, we examined the relationship between constitutive hsp70 and hsp90 expression and lens apoptosis. The model system is Astyanax mexicanus, a teleost species consisting of an eyed surface-dwelling (surface fish) form and numerous blind cave-dwelling (cavefish) forms. Optic primordia are formed in the cavefish embryo but they subsequently undergo lens apoptosis, arrest in development and degenerate. Astyanax hsp90 and hsp70 DNAs were isolated to use as probes to compare gene expression during surface fish and cavefish development. Hsp90beta, which encodes one of two hsp90 isoforms, was not expressed in the surface fish or cavefish lens, whereas hsp70 was expressed in the lens of both forms, suggesting that neither is directly involved in lens apoptosis. In contrast, hsp90alpha, the other hsp90 isoform, was expressed in the cavefish but not the surface fish lens. Hsp90alpha expression peaked shortly before the beginning of lens apoptosis in three convergent cavefish populations, suggesting a close relationship with lens apoptosis. The absence of hsp90beta in the lens allowed us to use geldanamycin and radicicol, specific inhibitors of hsp90 chaperone function, to determine whether lens cell death requires hsp90alpha expression. Both inhibitors blocked TUNEL labeling in the cavefish lens, suggesting that hsp90alpha is required for apoptosis. In contrast to their effects on the lens, these inhibitors induced TUNEL labeling in the surface epidermis, presumably due to effects on hsp90beta function, implying that the two-hsp90 isoforms may have contrasting roles in cell survival. We conclude that hsp90alpha plays a novel role in lens apoptosis and cavefish eye degeneration.