A yeast two-hybrid screen identified the regulatory subunit of the calcium-dependent protease calpain as a putative DNA ligase III-binding protein. Calpain binds to the N-terminal region of DNA ligase III, which contains an acidic proline, aspartate, serine, and threonine (PEST) domain frequently present in proteins cleaved by calpain. Recombinant DNA ligase III was a substrate for calpain degradation in vitro. This calpain-mediated proteolysis was calcium-dependent and was blocked by the specific calpain inhibitor calpeptin. Western blot analysis revealed that DNA ligase III was degraded in human fibrosarcoma HT1080 cells following exposure to γ-radiation. The degradation of DNA ligase III was prevented by pretreatment with calpeptin, which protected irradiated cells from death. Calpeptin treatment also blocked 9-amino camptothecin-induced DNA ligase III proteolysis and simultaneously protected the cells from death. HT1080 clones expressing a modified DNA ligase III that lacked a recognizable PEST domain were significantly more resistant to killing by γ-radiation or 9-amino camptothecin than were cells that overexpressed the wild-type form of DNA ligase III. These data show that calpain-mediated proteolysis of DNA ligase III plays an essential role in DNA damage-induced cell death in human cells.