Persistent infection with hepatitis B virus (HBV) is a leading cause of human liver disease and is strongly associated with hepatocellular carcinoma, one of the most prevalent forms of human cancer. Apoptosis (programmed cell death) is an important mediator of chronic liver disease caused by HBV infection. It is demonstrated that the HBV HBx protein acutely sensitizes cells to apoptotic killing when expressed during viral replication in cultured cells and in transfected cells independently of other HBV genes. Cells that were resistant to apoptotic killing by high doses of tumor necrosis factor α (TNFα), a cytokine associated with liver damage during HBV infection, were made sensitive to very low doses of TNFα by HBx. HBx induced apoptosis by prolonged stimulation of N-Myc and the stress-mediated mitogen-activated-protein kinase kinase 1 (MEKK1) pathway but not by up-regulating TNF receptors. Cell killing was blocked by inhibiting HBx stimulation of N-Myc or mitogen-activated-protein kinase kinase 1 using dominant-interfering forms or by retargeting HBx from the cytoplasm to the nucleus, which prevents HBx activation of cytoplasmic signal transduction cascades. Treatment of cells with a mitogenic growth factor produced by many virus-induced tumors impaired induction of apoptosis by HBx and TNFα. These results indicate that HBx might be involved in HBV pathogenesis (liver disease) during virus infection and that enhanced apoptotic killing by HBx and TNFα might select for neoplastic hepatocytes that survive by synthesizing mitogenic growth factors.