To better understand the mechanisms by which zinc deficiency induces epithelial cell death, studies were done of the effects of intracellular zinc depletion induced by the zinc chelator TPEN on apoptosis-related events in human malignant epithelial cell lines LIM1215 (colonic), NCI-H292 (bronchial), and A549 (alveolar type II). In TPEN-treated cells, depletion of zinc was followed by activation of caspase-3 (as demonstrated by enzymatic assay and Western blotting), DNA fragmentation, and morphologic changes. Increase in caspase-3 activity began 1-2 h after addition of TPEN, suggesting that zinc may suppress a step just before the activation of this caspase. Caspase-6, a mediator of caspase-3 processing, also increased, but later than caspase-3. Effects of TPEN on apoptosis were completely prevented by exogenous ZnSO4 and partially prevented by peptide caspase inhibitors. A critical substrate of caspase-3 may be the cell cycle regulator p21(Waf1/Cip1), which was rapidly cleaved in TPEN-treated cells to a 15-kDa fragment before further degradation.