Apoptotic cell death has been implicated in coral bleaching but the molecules involved and the mechanisms by which apoptosis is regulated are only now being identified. In contrast the mechanisms underlying apoptosis in higher animals are relatively well understood. To better understand the response of corals to thermal stress, the expression of coral homologs of six key regulators of apoptosis was studied in Acropora aspera under conditions simulating those of a mass bleaching event. Significant changes in expression were detected between the daily minimum and maximum temperatures. Maximum daily temperatures from as low as 3°C below the bleaching threshold resulted in significant changes in both pro-and anti-apoptotic gene expression. The results suggest that the control of apoptosis is highly complex in this eukaryote-eukaryote endosymbiosis and that apoptotic cell death cascades potentially play key roles tipping the cellular life/death balance during environmental stress prior to the onset of coral bleaching.