In mammals, mitochondria have been shown to play a key intermediary role in apoptosis, a morphologically distinct form of programmed cell death (PCD), for example, through the release of cytochrome c, which activates a proteolytic enzyme cascade, resulting in specific nuclear DNA degradation and cell death. In plants, PCD is a feature of normal development, including the penultimate stage of anther development, leading to dehiscence and pollen release. However, there is little evidence that plant mitochondria are involved in PCD. In a wide range of plant species, anther and/or pollen development is disrupted in a class of mutants termed CMS (for cytoplasmic male sterility), which is associated with mutations in the mitochondrial genome. On the basis of the manifestation of a number of morphological and biochemical markers of apoptosis, we have shown that the PET1-CMS cytoplasm in sunflower causes premature PCD of the tapetal cells, which then extends to other anther tissues. These features included cell condensation, oligonucleosomal cleavage of nuclear DNA, separation of chromatin into delineated masses, and initial persistence of mitochondria. In addition, immunocytochemical analysis revealed that cytochrome c was released partially from the mitochondria into the cytosol of tapetal cells before the gross morphological changes associated with PCD. The decrease in cytochrome c content in mitochondria isolated from male sterile florets preceded a decrease in the integrity of the outer mitochondrial membrane and respiratory control ratio. Our data suggest that plant mitochondria, like mammalian mitochondria, play a key role in the induction of PCD. The tissue-specific nature of the CMS phenotype is discussed with regard to cellular respiratory demand and PCD during normal anther development.