The effects of different concentrations of tumour necrosis factor-α (TNF-α) on rat adipocyte apoptosis were detected by optical microscopy, agarose gel electrophoresis and flow cytometry methods. The morphological changes of rat adipocyte apoptosis induced by TNF-α correlated linearly with the concentration of TNF-α, ranging from 5 to 20 ng/ml. High concentrations of TNF-α induced more obvious apoptosis. Significant morphological changes of rat adipocytes treated with 5 ng/ml TNF-α were noticed, but DNA ladders did not appear in the DNA electrophoresis analysis, i.e. morphological changes occurred earlier than the biochemical changes. TNF-α induced apoptosis in the rat adipocyte in a dose-dependent manner. The induced apoptotic effect of 5, 10, 15 and 20 ng/ml TNF-α was significantly different (P0.01), but the effect among 10, 15 and 20 ng/ml TNF-α treatments was not significantly different (P0.05). Thus the optimum concentration of TNF-α for inducing apoptosis was 10 ng/ml.