This is the first study to show that apoptosis as an immune regulatory mechanism is conserved in fish, demonstrating its importance in maintaining immunological homeostasis. The data further show that this mechanism is subject to control by glucocorticosteroids. Carp plasma cortisol concentrations increase from 20 to 434 ng/ml and cortisone from 5 to 50 ng/ml within 9 min of the onset of handling stress. At basal steroid concentrations in vitro, cortisol, but not its conversion product cortisone, inhibits proliferation of peripheral blood lymphocytes (PBL), as measured by [3H]thymidine incorporation. Induction of apoptosis in activated PBL is the apparent mechanism of cortisol action. In nonstimulated PBL cultures, apoptosis is induced by neglect (a lack of stimulating signals). Stimulation with LPS or PHA rescues lymphocytes from this type of apoptosis. Stimulated PBL populations, however, are sensitive to cortisol-induced apoptosis. Culture supernatants from activated PBL protect PBL from apoptosis by neglect, probably by supplying a growth signal. These supernatants, however, have no effect on cortisol-induced apoptosis.