To identify genes involved in plant programmed cell death (PCD), changes in gene expression during PCD in a model system of suspension-cultured tomato cells were studied. In this system, cell death is triggered by treatment with camptothecin, an inhibitor of topoisomerase I. Cell death was accompanied by internucleosomal DNA degradation, indicating that the cell death process shares similarities with apoptosis in animals. Tomato homologues of DAD1 and HSR203, two genes that have been implicated in PCD, were isolated. During camptothecin-induced PCD tomato DAD1 mRNA levels roughly halve, while tomato HSR203 mRNA levels increase 5-fold. A differential display approach was used to identify novel genes that show changes in expression levels during camptothecin-induced PCD. This resulted in isolation of two up-regulated (CTU1 and CTU2) and four down-regulated (CTD1, CTD2, CTD4, and CTD5) cDNA clones. CTU1 shows high homology to various gluthatione S-transferases, whereas CTU2 is as yet unidentified. CTD1 is highly similar to Aux/IAA early-auxin-responsive genes. CTD2 corresponds to the tomato RSI-1 gene, CTD4 is an unknown clone, and CTD5 shows limited homology with a proline-rich protein from maize. Addition of the calcium channel blocker lanthanum chloride prevented camptothecin-induced cell death. The effect of lanthanum chloride on camptothecin-induced gene expression was studied to discriminate between putative cell death genes and general stress genes. The possible role of the various predicted gene products in plant PCD is discussed.