Mycobacterium tuberculosis interacts with macrophages and epithelial cells in the alveolar space of the lung, where it is able to invade and replicate in both cell types. M. tuberculosis-associated cytotoxicity to these cells has been well documented, but the mechanisms of host cell death are not well understood. We examined the induction of apoptosis and necrosis of human macrophages (U937) and type II alveolar epithelial cells (A549) by virulent (H37Rv) and attenuated (H37Ra) M. tuberculosis strains. Apoptosis was determined by both enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) and TdT-mediated dUTP nick end labelling (TUNEL) assay, whereas necrosis was evaluated by the release of lactate dehydrogenase (LDH). Both virulent and attenuated M. tuberculosis induced apoptosis in macrophages; however, the attenuated strain resulted in significantly more apoptosis than the virulent strain after 5 days of infection. In contrast, cytotoxicity of alveolar cells was the result of necrosis, but not apoptosis. Although infection with M. tuberculosis strains resulted in apoptosis of 14% of the cells on the monolayer, cell death associated with necrosis was observed in 59% of alveolar epithelial cells after 5 days of infection. Infection with M. tuberculosis suppressed apoptosis of alveolar epithelial cells induced by the kinase inhibitor, staurosporine. Because our findings suggest that M. tuberculosis can modulate the apoptotic response of macrophages and epithelial cells, we carried out an apoptosis pathway-specific cDNA microarray analysis of human macrophages and alveolar epithelial cells. Whereas the inhibitors of apoptosis, bcl-2 and Rb, were upregulated over 2.5-fold in infected (48 h) alveolar epithelial cells, the proapoptotic genes, bad and bax, were downregulated. The opposite was observed when U937 macrophages were infected with M. tuberculosis. Upon infection of alveolar epithelial cells with M. tuberculosis, the generation of apoptosis, as determined by the expression of caspase-1, caspase-3 and caspase-10, was inhibited. Inhibition of replication of intracellular bacteria resulted in an increase in apoptosis in both cell types. Our results showed that the differential induction of apoptosis between macrophages and alveolar epithelial cells represents specific strategies of M. tuberculosis for survival in the host.