Patients with sepsis are immune compromised, as evidenced by their failure to clear their primary infection and their propensity to develop secondary infections with pathogens that are often not particularly virulent in normal healthy individuals. A potential mechanism for immunosuppression in sepsis is lymphocyte apoptosis, which may occur by either a death receptor or a mitochondrial-mediated pathway. A prospective study of blood samples from 71 patients with sepsis, 55 nonseptic patients, and 6 healthy volunteers was undertaken to quantitate lymphocyte apoptosis and determine cell death pathways and mechanisms of apoptosis. Apoptosis was evaluated by flow cytometry and Western blotting. Lymphocyte apoptosis was increased in CD4 and CD8 T cells, B cells (CD20), and NK cells (CD56) in septic vs nonseptic patients. Samples taken sequentially from 10 patients with sepsis showed that the degree of CD3 T cell apoptosis correlated with the activity of his/her sepsis. In septic patients, apoptotic lymphocytes were positive for active caspases 8 and 9, consistent with death occurring by both mitochondrial-mediated and receptor-mediated pathways. In support of the concept that both death pathways were operative, lymphocyte apoptosis occurred in cells with markedly decreased Bcl-2 (an inhibitor of mitochondrial-mediated apoptosis) as well as cells with normal concentrations of Bcl-2. In conclusion, apoptosis occurs in a broad range of lymphocyte subsets in patients with sepsis and correlates with the activity of the disease. Lymphocyte loss occurs by both death receptor and mitochondrial-mediated apoptosis, suggesting that there may be multiple triggers for lymphocyte apoptosis.