The Bcl-2 family of proteins plays a central role in the regulation of mitochondrial outer-membrane permeabilization, a critical step in apoptosis. Heterodimerization between the pro- and anti-apoptotic members of Bcl-2 family is a key event in this process. Anti-apoptotic proteins have high levels of expression in many cancers and they have different affinities for different pro-apoptotic proteins. Experimentally determined structures of all members of Bcl-2 proteins have remarkably similar helical fold despite poor amino acid sequence identity. Peptides representing BH3 region of pro-apoptotic proteins have been shown to bind the hydrophobic cleft of anti-apoptotic proteins and this segment is responsible in modulating the apoptotic pathways in living cells. Understanding the molecular basis of protein–protein recognition is required to develop inhibitors specific to a particular anti-apoptotic protein. We have carried out molecular dynamics simulations on the anti-apoptotic Bcl-XL protein in complex with three different BH3 peptides derived from pro-apoptotic Bak, Bad and Bim proteins. Each complex structure was simulated for a period of 50 ns after 2.5 ns equilibration. Analysis of the simulation results showed that in the Bcl-XL protein, the helix containing the BH3 region is more flexible than other helices in all three simulations. A network of strong hydrophobic interactions exists between four of the six helices and they contribute significantly to the stability of this helix bundle protein. Analysis of Bcl-XL-BH3 peptide interactions reveals the role of loop residues in the protein–peptide interactions in all three simulations. Bad and Bim peptides maintain strong hydrophobic and hydrophilic interactions with the helix preceding the central hydrophobic helix. Residues from this helix interact with an Arg residue in Bad and Bim peptides. This Arg residue is next to the conserved Leu residue and is replaced by Ala in Bak. Absence of these interactions and the helix propensity are likely to be the cause for Bak peptide's weaker binding affinity with the Bcl-XL protein. The results of this study have implications in the design of Bcl-XL-specific inhibitors. Proteins 2008. © 2008 Wiley-Liss, Inc.