Infection of the fetal epithelium (trophoblast) lining the villous placenta by human cytomegalovirus (HCMV) accompanies placental inflammations and fetal intrauterine growth restriction. However, the consequences of infection on the villous trophoblast have not been explored. We show that HCMV infection of primary immature (cytotrophoblast-like) or mature (syncytiotrophoblast-like) cultures results in loss of half of the cells within 24 hours of virus challenge. Two-color immunofluorescence of HCMV immediate early (IE) gene expression and apoptosis (terminal dUTP nick-end labeling) revealed apoptosis only in uninfected cells. Antibody to tumor necrosis factor (TNF)-alpha completely inhibited infection-induced trophoblast apoptosis and cell loss, as did co-incubation with epidermal growth factor, known to inhibit trophoblast apoptosis. Transfection with HCMV immediate early- (IE)1-72 and IE2-86, but not IE2-55, expression plasmids induced paracrine trophoblast apoptosis inhibitable by epidermal growth factor or antibody to TNF-alpha. These results show that HCMV infection of villous trophoblasts leads to rapid loss of neighboring cells mediated by viral IE protein-induced TNF-alpha secretion. We propose that HCMV infection damages the placental trophoblast barrier by accelerating trophoblast turnover and decreasing its capacity for renewal.