The present study describes the sequential ultrastructural changes in the apoptotic cells of the rat ventral and dorsal prostates during the early period of 1-3 days postcastration. The major morphological changes include: (1) condensation of heterochromatin along the nuclear envelope and fragmentation into crescent-shaped micronuclei; (2) formation of membrane-bound cytoplasmic spherical bodies, which contain various organelles and micronuclei, within the apoptotic cells; (3) formation of non-membrane-bound autolytic vacuoles by autolysis of cytoplasm; (4) focal rupture of outer mitochondrial membrane; and (5) phagocytosis of the fragmented cytoplasmic spherical bodies and apoptotic cells by macrophages. The occurrence of both cytoplasmic apoptotic bodies and autolytic vacuoles in apoptotic cells suggests that the cytoplasm of the apoptotic cells could be destroyed by different means. The responsiveness of different prostatic lobes to androgen withdrawal and the time course of the transitory apoptotic activity in different lobes were analyzed by counting the indices of the TUNEL-labeled apoptotic cells against the postcastration periods. The results showed that the ventral lobe responded more rapidly to castration than the lateral and dorsal lobes. The dorsal lobe was the slowest in response to castration among the three lobes. Analysis of protease activities by zymography has identified two Ca(2+)-independent proteases of apparent MW 20 and 24 kDa (expressed in both ventral and dorsolateral lobes), and one Ca(2+)-dependent protease of MW 66.5 kDa (expressed only in the dorsolateral lobe) which became activated at day 3 postcastration. Their expression patterns were different from that of CPP-3 in the castrated prostates, suggesting that the activated proteases were enzymes other than CPP-3. The association of their highest activities with the maximum apoptotic activity at day 3 postcastration and also their loss of activity at day 15 suggest that these protease activities might be related to apoptosis or glandular involution.