Expression of the adenovirus E1A oncogene stimulates both cell proliferation and p53-dependent apoptosis in rodent cells. p53 implements apoptosis in all or in part through transcriptional activation of bax, the product of which promotes cell death. The adenovirus E1B 19K product is homologous in sequence and in function to Bcl-2, both of which bind to and inhibit the activity of Bax and thereby suppress apoptosis. The E1B 19K protein also interacts with the nuclear lamins, but the role of this interaction in the regulation of apoptosis is not known. Lamins are, however, substrates for members of the interleukin-1 beta-converting enzyme (ICE) family of cysteine proteases that are activated during apoptosis and function downstream of Bcl-2 in the cell death pathway. lamins are degraded during E1A- induced p53-dependent apoptosis. Lamin A and C are cleaved into 47- and 37-kD fragments, respectively, and the site of proteolysis is mapped to a conserved aspartic acid residue at position 230. The cleavage of lamins during apoptosis is consistent with the activation of an ICE- related cysteine protease down-stream of p53. No lamin protease activity was detected in cells expressing the E1B 19K protein, indicating that 19K functions upstream of protease activation in inhibiting apoptosis. Substitution of the aspartic acid at the cleavage site produced a mutant lamin protein that was resistant to proteolysis both in vitro and in vivo. Expression of uncleavable mutant lamin A or B attenuated apoptosis, delaying cell death and the associated DNA fragmentation by 12 h. Mutant lamin expressing cells failed to show the signs of chromatin condensation and nuclear shrinkage typical of cell death by apoptosis. Instead, the nuclear envelope collapsed and the nuclear lamina remained intact. However, the late stage of apoptosis was morphologically unaltered and formation of apoptotic bodies was evident. Thus, lamin breakdown by proteolytic degradation facilitates the nuclear events of apoptosis perhaps by facilitating nuclear breakdown.