To produce conditional expression of genes in the mouse epidermis we have generated transgenic mouse lines in which the tetracycline-regulated transcriptional transactivators, tTA and rTA, are linked to the bovine keratin 5 promoter. The transactivator lines were crossed with the tetOlacZ indicator line to test for transactivation in vivo. In the absence of doxycycline, the K5/tTA line induced beta-galactosidase enzyme activity in the epidermis at a level 500-fold higher than controls, and oral and topical doxycycline caused a dose- and time-dependent suppression of beta-galactosidase mRNA levels and enzyme activity. In the K5/rTA lines, doxycycline induced beta-galactosidase activity between 3- and 50-fold higher depending on the founder line, and this occurred within 24-48 h after dosing. Histochemical analysis of all lines localized beta-galactosidase expression to the basal layer of the epidermis and the outer root sheath of the hair follicle, as well as other keratin 5 positive tissues. In several K5/rTA lines, skin-specific transactivation was restricted to the hair follicle. Treatment of these double transgenic mice with 12-O-tetradecanoyl-phorbol-13-acetate caused rapid migration of beta-galactosidase marked cells from the hair follicle through the interfollicular epidermis, demonstrating the usefulness of this specific double transgenic for fate mapping cells in the epidermis. These results show that the tetracycline regulatory system produces effective conditional gene expression in the mouse epidermis, and suggest that it should be amenable to suppression and activation of foreign genes during development and specific pathologic conditions relevant to the epidermis.