Cytotoxic accumulation of long chain fatty acids has been proposed to play an important role in the pathogenesis of diabetes mellitus and heart disease. To explore the mechanism of cellular lipotoxicity, we cultured Chinese hamster ovary cells in the presence of media supplemented with fatty acid. The saturated fatty acid palmitate, but not the monounsaturated fatty acid oleate, induced programmed cell death as determined by annexin V positivity, caspase 3 activity, and DNA laddering. De novo ceramide synthesis increased 2.4-fold with palmitate supplementation; however, this was not required for palmitate-induced apoptosis. Neither biochemical nor genetic inhibition of de novo ceramide synthesis arrested apoptosis in Chinese hamster ovary cells in response to palmitate supplementation. Rather, our data suggest that palmitate-induced apoptosis occurs through the generation of reactive oxygen species. Fluorescence of an oxidant-sensitive probe was increased 3.5-fold with palmitate supplementation indicating that production of reactive intermediates increased. In addition, palmitate-induced apoptosis was blocked by pyrrolidine dithiocarbamate and 4,5-dihydroxy-1,3-benzene-disulfonic acid, two compounds that scavenge reactive intermediates. These studies suggest that generation of reactive oxygen species, independent of ceramide synthesis, is important for the lipotoxic response and may contribute to the pathogenesis of diseases involving intracellular lipid accumulation.