The key role for mitochondria in mammalian apoptosis, a form of programmed cell death (PCD), is well established, but a similar role for plant mitochondria is just emerging. In order to unravel the molecular mechanisms linking plant mitochondria to the downstream events of PCD, we have developed an Arabidopsis cell-free system that can be used to monitor biochemical and morphological changes in isolated nuclei that are associated with PCD. Using this system, two activities that resulted in nuclear DNA degradation could be distinguished, both of which were facilitated by the addition of mitochondria. One activity mediated the generation of 30 kb DNA fragments within 3 h and chromatin condensation within 6 h, when nuclei were incubated with mitochondria alone. The second activity required cytosolic extract in addition to mitochondria and resulted in oligonucleosome-sized DNA cleavage after >12 h. Submitochondrial fractionation and pharmacological studies suggested the presence of an Mg2+-dependent nuclease activity in the intermembrane space, which is responsible for the former in vitro activity. The evolutionary conservation of the role of mitochondria in PCD in animals and plants is discussed.