Activation of 'initiator' (or 'apical') caspases-2, -8 or -9 (refs 1-3) is crucial for induction of apoptosis. These caspases function to activate executioner caspapses that, in turn, orchestrate apoptotic cell death. Here, we show that a cell-permeable, biotinylated pan-caspase inhibitor (bVAD-fmk) both inhibited and 'trapped' the apical caspase activated when apoptosis was triggered. As expected, only caspase-8 was trapped in response to ligation of death receptors, whereas only caspase-9 was trapped in response to a variety of other apoptosis-inducing agents. Caspase-2 was exclusively activated in heat shock-induced apoptosis. This activation of caspase-2 was also observed in cells protected from heat-shock-induced apoptosis by Bcl-2 or Bcl-xL. Reduced sensitivity to heat-shock-induced death was observed in caspase-2(-/-) cells. Furthermore, cells lacking the adapter molecule RAIDD failed to activate caspase-2 after heat shock treatment and showed resistance to apoptosis in this setting. This approach unambiguously identifies the apical caspase activated in response to apoptotic stimuli, and establishes caspase-2 as a proximal mediator of heat shock-induced apoptosis.