In the course of the apoptotic cell death, cells fragment into apoptotic bodies, the elimination of which by phagocytosis is thought to avoid the release of cytosolic constituents whose occurrence is indicative for necrotic cell death. Confluent cultures of chicken embryo fibroblasts, however, show a different behaviour. After serum deprivation, they transiently released with the same time course mitogenic activity, lactate dehydrogenase and cytosolic peptidyl prolyl cis-trans isomerases into the serum-free culture medium. The release correlated in time with a decrease of the cell number which started approximately 3 h after serum removal and ceased within approximately 10 h at about half of the initial cell density. Morphological features like cell shrinkage, membrane blebbing and cell fragmentation as well as internucleosomal DNA fragmentation indicated apoptotic cell death whereas necrotic cell death could be excluded. Conditioned medium (M(r) > or = 30 kDa) from serum-deprived cultures of chicken embryo fibroblasts completely prevented chicken embryo fibroblasts to undergo apoptosis as did phorbol 12-myristate, 13-acetate and, to -60%, L-cysteine. Cycloheximide had no effect on serum deprivation-induced apoptosis. From the present results it can be concluded that chicken embryo fibroblasts and possibly other cells undergoing apoptosis release cytosolic components and endogenous survival factor(s) which prevent apoptosis.