Background: Published work suggests that some types of endothelial cells undergo apoptosis in response to ligation of the receptor Fas (CD95, APO1) but other types are resistant. Because heterogeneity among endothelial cells from different tissues, has been demonstrated, the purpose of this study was to determine, if Fas ligation and/or activation by human Fas ligand induces apoptosis and caspase activities, in cultured human coronary artery endothelial cells, and the differences between TNF-a and FAS induced apoptosis in these cells. Results: Cultured human coronary artery endothelial cells (HCAEC) were exposed to the monoclonal Fasactivating antibody CH-11, to purified recombinant human Fas ligand, to the Fas-neutralizing antibody ZB4, or to purified recombinant human TNF-α. Apoptosis was detected by assessment of chromatin condensation and nuclear fragmentation and by assay of the enzymatic activities of Caspase 1 and Caspase 3 with membrane-permeable substrates applied to intact cells. Fas protein was detected by immunoblotting of HCAEC lysates. Apoptosis was induced in HCAEC by purified Fas ligand or by the monoclonal activating antibody CH-11 at concentrations of 25 or 200 ng/ml, but not by nonspecific isotype-matched immunoglobulins. The apoptotic index elicited by either Fas activator was equal to that induced by TNF-a (3.0-3.6-fold versus control, p < 0.01). The Fas-neutralizing antibody ZB4 abrogated HCAEC apoptosis induced by CH-11, but had no inhibitory effect on apoptosis in response to TNF-a. Fas ligation significantly increased the activities of both Caspase 1 and Caspase 3 at 20 hours of stimulation (1.7- and 2.0-fold versus control, both p < 0.05); in contrast, purified TNF-a increased the activity of Caspase 3 but not Caspase 1 (2.1-fold, p < 0.05). Western blotting of HCAEC lysates with antibody CH-11 identified a single immunoreactive protein of 90 kDa. Conclusions: Cultured human coronary artery endothelial cells express functional Fas capable of inducing apoptosis in response to either purified Fas ligand or receptor-activating monoclonal antibodies, at levels equal to those inducible by purified TNF-α. Immunologic studies and differential kinetics of caspase activation suggest that Fas and TNF-a induce apoptosis in HCAEC by signaling pathways that are distinct but equal in potency.