Despite recent advances in antibiotic therapy, aggressive operative intervention and intravenous hyperalimentation, sepsis, and multiple organ failure are still reported to contribute to significant morbidity and mortality in the surgical intensive care unit. In light of this, it is essential to determine the mechanism underlying the pathophysiology of sepsis so that better therapeutic interventions can be designed. Experimental studies indicate that murine polymicrobial sepsis induces a marked suppression in both lymphocytic and macrophage function associated with decreased cellular adenosine triphosphate levels and increased Ca2+. However, such changes are not detectable until ∼ 12 h after the onset of sepsis. Alternatively, early (0-4 h) in sepsis, macrophages from the liver and peritoneum exhibit augmented innate secretion of proinflammatory cytokines, tumor necrosis factor, interleukin (IL)-6, and IL-1, associated with the systemic release of these agents. Sustained release of immunosuppressive agents transforming growth factor-β, IL-4, IL-10, and PGE2, as well as glucocorticoids, are also observed during sepsis. In this regard, many investigators, including us, have suggested that an agent(s) released as a part of this systemic inflammatory response to sepsis may be responsible for the protracted suppression of immune cell function. Studies examining the effects of these mediators in vitro on various immune cells have shown that many of these agents also have the capacity to induce a process referred to as programmed cell death (PCD) or apoptosis (Ao). We have presented evidence of marked changes in the rate of Ao in immune cells after the onset of sepsis. These data suggest the possibility that mediators released in response to septic insult contribute to the observed changes in immune cell function through the induction of Ao. Inasmuch, understanding the contribution of PCD to the pathophysiology of sepsis, should provide a better basis from which to develop more effective therapy for the septic patient.