Programmed cell death (PCD) in animals depends on caspase protease activity. Plants also exhibit PCD, for example as a response to pathogens, although a plant caspase remains elusive. Here we show that vacuolar processing enzyme (VPE) is a protease essential for a virus-induced hypersensitive response that involves PCD. VPE deficiency prevented virus-induced hypersensitive cell death in tobacco plants. VPE is structurally unrelated to caspases, although VPE has a caspase-1 activity. Thus, plants have evolved a regulated cellular suicide strategy that, unlike PCD of animals, is mediated by VPE and the cellular vacuole.