Estrogen plays a critical role in the protection from apoptosis in several cell types because the withdrawal of estrogen leads to increased apoptosis in tissues such as the brain, endothelium, testes, and uterus. Our recent report demonstrated that the chick oviduct also regresses through apoptotic mechanisms during estrogen deficiency. Despite these observations, very little is known concerning the intracellular mechanisms by which estrogen opposes apoptosis. To better understand how estrogen exerts its antiapoptotic effects, several key apoptotic genes were examined for their regulation by estrogen. Our results show that mRNA expression levels of Bcl-2, hsp-70, c-myc, Bcl-X(l), caspase-3, and caspase-6 remain essentially constant when apoptosis is stimulated by estrogen withdrawal. However, the genes for caspase-1 and caspase-2 are rapidly stimulated, at least for the most part, at the transcriptional level after the withdrawal of estrogen. This increase in caspase-2 mRNA is followed by an increase in enzyme activity. Furthermore, although mRNA expression levels are unaffected, both caspase-3 and caspase-6 proenzymes are activated in the estrogen-withdrawn cells. Taken together, these results demonstrate that estrogen has the potential to oppose apoptosis by regulating caspase activity through both transcriptional and posttranscriptional mechanisms in reproductive tissues.