In the adult small intestine, the dynamic renewal of the epithelium is characterized by a sequence of cell production in the crypts, cell maturation and cell migration to the tip of villi, where apoptosis is undertaken. Little is known about enterocytic apoptosis during development. In man, intestinal architectural features and functions are acquired largely by mid-gestation (18-20 wks); the question whether the establishment of enterocytic apoptotic processes parallels or not the acquisition of other intestinal functional features remains open. In the present study, we approached this question by examining enterocytic apoptosis during development of the human jejunum (9-20 wks gestation), using the ISEL (in situ terminal uridine deoxynucleotidyl nick-end labelling) method. Between 9 and 17 wks, apoptotic enterocytes were not evidenced. However, beginning at the 18 wks stage, ISEL-positive enterocytes were regularly observed at the tip of villi. Since the Bcl-2 family of proteins constitutes a critical checkpoint in apoptosis, acting upstream of the apoptotic machinery, we investigated the expression of six Bcl-2 homologs (Bcl-2, Bcl-X(L), Mcl-1, Bax, Bak, Bad) and one non-homologous associated molecule (Bag-1). By immunofluorescence, we found that all homologs analyzed were expressed by enterocytes between 9 and 20 wks. However, Bcl-2 homologs underwent a gradual compartmentalization of epithelial expression along the maturing crypt-villus axis, to establish gradients of expression by 18-20 wks. Western blot analyses indicated that the expression levels of Bcl-2 homologs were modulated during morphogenesis of the crypt-villus axis, in parallel to their gradual compartmentalization of expression. Altogether, these data suggest that regulatory mechanisms of human enterocytic apoptosis become established by mid-gestation (18-20 wks) and coincide with the maturation of the crypt-villus axis of cell proliferation, differentiation and renewal.