The rapid progress in gene therapy has expanded our ability to alter genetic structure, necessitating the development of methods for detecting the activity of new vectors. The central concept of a reporter gene is simple: it is a defined nucleotide sequence, which when introduced into a biological system, yields a readily measurable phenotype on expression. This provides a convenient parameter that is correlated to the molecular events associated with genetic expression. In this study we demonstrate that Pseudomonas exotoxin A (PE) can serve as a sensitive reporter gene to detect gene expression in single cells of mouse lung on cationic liposome delivery of PE-encoding DNA in vivo. Furthermore, we show that PE expression can be detected as early as 2 hr after systemic gene delivery in lungs of recipient mice. We compared PE with the widely used beta-galactosidase gene for this purpose. PE induces apoptosis that can be detected by TdT end labeling of DNA fragments (TUNEL assay) Since few expressed PE molecules are necessary to trigger the apoptosis cascade, the minimal amount of PE-encoding plasmid DNA needed for detection of apoptotic cells after systemic delivery was 0.1 microg per animal compared with at least 1 microg for the beta-galactosidase-encoding plasmid DNA. The maximum number of apoptotic cells detected in lungs was about 15-20 times higher than the maximum number of beta-galactosidase-positive cells. Specificity of apoptosis due to PE expression on delivery of the PE-encoding plasmid was shown by prevention of the apoptotic cascade by the caspase inhibitor Z-VAD-fmk.