Antilymphocyte and antithymocyte globulins (ALG) are currently used as immunosuppressive agents in clinical transplantation and for the treatment of severe aplastic anemia. ALG contain a mixture of antibodies that recognize T- and B-cell-specific antigens but mostly nonlineage-specific molecules. We reported previously that ALG could inhibit the proliferation of activated B cells and B cell lines (Bonnefoy-Berard et al, Blood 79:2164, 1992). We show here that ALG induce apoptosis of several human hematopoietic cell lines, as shown by nuclear condensation and fragmentation in fluorescence and electronic microscopy and by double-strand DNA breaks shown by DNA electrophoresis. Apoptosis was achieved without elevation of intracellular Ca2+ and requirement for mRNA and protein synthesis. Most of the B-cell lines tested (Epstein-Barr virus [EBV]-transformed lymphoblastoid cell lines, EBV-negative and groups I/III EBV-positive Burkitt's lymphoma cell lines, as well as other B-lymphoma cell lines) were susceptible to ALG-induced cytotoxicity. Myelomonocytic and T-cell lines were much less susceptible than B-cell lines. Susceptibility to ALG-induced cytotoxicity was not correlated with intracellular Bcl-2 level. Most cell lines that express high levels of Fas/Apo-1 antigen were susceptible to ALG. However, several lines of evidence support the conclusion that, in addition to Fas/Apo-1, other cell surface molecules can mediate ALG-induced apoptosis. The cytotoxic activity could be fully removed by adsorption on susceptible cell lines but not on a resistant cell line, indicating that it was mediated by antibodies specific for surface antigens expressed only on susceptible cell lines. Apoptosis was triggered by ALG F(ab')2 fragments as well as by intact ALG. This cytotoxic property of ALG may account for their antiproliferative effect and might contribute to some extent to the relatively lower risk of posttransplant lymphoproliferative disorders previously reported in ALG-treated patients.