The ces (for cell-death specification) genes of the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans control the cell-death fate of individual cell types and are candidates for being the regulators of an evolutionarily conserved general pathway of programmed cell death. Here we present what we believe is the first molecular characterization of a ces gene. We cloned the gene ces-2, which is required to activate programmed cell death in the sister cells of the serotoninergic neurosecretory motor (NSM) neurons, and found that ces-2 encodes a basic region leucine-zipper (bZIP) transcription factor. The CES-2 protein is most similar to members of the PAR (proline- and acid-rich) subfamily of bZIP proteins and has DNA-binding specificity like that of PAR-family proteins. An oncogenic form of the mammalian PAR-family protein, hepatic leukaemia factor (HLF), is reported to effect programmed cell death in mammalian cells. On the basis of these observations, we suggest that some CES-2/PAR family transcription factors are evolutionary conserved regulators of programmed cell death.