Studies in a wide variety of organisms have produced a general model for the induction of apoptosis in which multiple signaling pathways lead ultimately to activation of the caspase family of proteases. Once activated, these enzymes cleave key cellular substrates to promote the orderly dismantling of dying cells. A broad similarity exists in the cell death pathways operating in different organisms and there is a clear evolutionary conservation of apoptotic regulators such as caspases, Bcl-2 family members, inhibitor of apoptosis (IAP) proteins, IAP antagonists and caspase activators. Despite this, studies in Caenorhabditis elegans, Drosophila and vertebrates have revealed some apparent differences both in the way apoptosis is regulated and in the way individual molecules contribute to the propagation of the death signal. For example, whereas cytochrome c released from mitochondria clearly promotes caspase activation in vertebrates, there is no documented role for cytochrome c in C. elegans apoptosis and its role in Drosophila is highly controversial. In addition, the apoptotic potency of IAP antagonists appears to be greater in Drosophila than in vertebrates, indicating that IAPs may be of different relative importance in different organisms. Thus, although Drosophila, worms and humans share a host of apoptotic regulators, the way in which they function may not be identical.