Spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) is a motor neuron disease characterized by degeneration of the anterior horn cells of the spinal cord. It is a common fatal autosomal recessive disorder and linkage studies have identified two candidate genes, SMN (ref. 1) and NAIP (ref. 2), both on chromosome 5q13. Although NAIP protein is known to have an anti-apoptotic function, the function of SMN has been unclear and it shows no significant sequence similarity to any other protein. The SMN gene is deleted or interrupted on both chromosomes in nearly all SMA patients. Here we show that SMN interacts with Bcl-2, another anti-apoptotic protein, and that co-expression of SMN with Bcl-2 confers a synergistic preventive effect against Bax-induced or Fas-mediated apoptosis, although SMN itself has only a weak anti-apoptotic activity. SMNY272C, which carries a missense mutation and was found in an SMA patient who exceptionally retained SMN on one allele, exerts no synergism with Bcl-2. Furthermore, the product of a truncated transcript lacking exon 7, which was derived from an SMN gene carrying an intragenic mutation or from the SMN copy gene c BCD541 (ref. 1) retained in all SMA patients, had no synergistic activity but instead had a dominant-negative effect on full-length SMN. Our results indicate that an absent or decreased anti-apoptotic activity of SMN in concert with Bcl-2 underlies the pathogenesis of SMA.