The present study investigates the relationship between mitochondrial activity and the expression of the BCL-2 gene in a panel of six human and murine leukemia/lymphoma cell lines. The cell lines all contained normal glucocorticoid receptors but differed widely in sensitivity to dexamethasone, ranging from very sensitive S49 lymphoma to completely resistant HL-60 acute leukemia cells. In this panel, 10- to 15-fold differences in basal adenosine triphosphate (ATP) content and adenosine diphosphate (ADP)/ATP ratio were correlated with up to fivefold differences in bcl-2 protein (in human cells) and approximately 25-fold difference in bcl-2 mRNA content (all cell lines). Moreover, ATP content and BCL-2 gene expression were inversely correlated with glucocorticoid sensitivity and cell cycle length. In resistant cell lines, sensitivity to dexamethasone was restored by the mitochondrial inhibitors rotenone and meta-iodobenzylguanidine. This sensitization was not accompanied by detectable reductions in bcl-2 mRNA or protein content, suggesting that the inhibitors were capable of overriding BCL- 2-mediated inhibition of apoptosis. Increased mitochondrial activity and (overexpressed) BCL-2 appeared closely related properties of glucocorticoid-resistant cells, sharing common cellular targets in hormone-induced apoptosis.