In dexamethasone-treated thymocyte cultures an increase in nuclear proteolytic activity paralleled chromatin fragmentation and the appearance of small apoptotic cells. The elevation of nuclear proteolytic activity was accompanied by site-specific degradation of nuclear mitotic apparatus protein and lamin B, two essential components of the nuclear matrix. Nuclear mitotic apparatus protein phosphorylation and cleavage into 200 and 48 kDa fragments occurred within 30 minutes of dexamethasone treatment. Cleavage of lamin B, which generated a fragment of 46 kDa consistent with the central rod domain of the protein, was also detected after 30 minutes of exposure to the steroid hormone. The level of lamin B phosphorylation did not change as a result of the dexamethasone treatment and the lamina did not solubilize until the later stages of apoptosis. Initial DNA breaks, detected by the terminal transferase-mediated dUTP-biotin nick end labeling assay, occurred throughout the nuclei and solubilization of lamina was not required for this process to commence. The data presented in this paper support a model of apoptotic nuclear destruction brought about by the site-specific proteolysis of key structural proteins. Both the nuclear mitotic apparatus protein and lamin B were specifically targeted by protease(s) at early stages of the cell death pathway, which possibly initiate the cascade of degradative events in apoptosis.