Naturally occurring mutations of the beta subunit of the cyclic guanosine monophosphate (cGMP) phosphodiesterase (beta-PDE) gene in rod photoreceptors of mice and dogs are similar to one of the inherited retinal degenerations termed retinitis pigmentosa in humans. Defects in the rod beta-PDE gene leading to photoreceptor cell degeneration in retinal degenerative (rd) mice can be corrected by transfer of a wild type beta-PDE gene. However, the rapid photoreceptor degeneration in this mutant makes the study of gene therapy difficult. Since the retinal degeneration is slowed in vitro, we have employed retinal explants from rd mice to study factors influencing viral transduction. Retinal explants provide a rapid, efficient method to compare the transduction efficiency of adenoviral vector-mediated reporter gene delivery at different ages in normal and rd mice. Retinal explants from postnatal day (P)2 to P28 control (C57BL/6J) and P2-P42 rd mice were exposed for 20 hr to 2.5 x 10(8) plaque forming units (pfu) ml(-1) of adenoviral vector with a beta-galactosidase (Lac Z) reporter gene (Ad-CMV-Lac Z). After incubation in vector-free media for an additional 3 days, the explants were fixed and histochemically stained for beta-galactosidase to reveal Lac Z gene expression. The explants were also embedded and sectioned for light microscopic observation. Transduction efficiency was higher in rd mice than in controls on all postnatal days examined. In normal retinal explants, expression of the Lac Z gene increased from P2 to a peak around P7-P8, then decreased at subsequent ages; little transduction could be found after P17. In rd mice transduction efficiency of Ad-CMV-Lac Z increased from P2 to P7, decreased by P10 and increased again after P10. The most dramatic increase in the transduction efficiency occurred in the rd retina between P10 and P15 when Lac Z was intensely expressed throughout the retina. Microscopic examination of retinal sections revealed the types and distribution of Lac Z-positive cells responsible for the deep blue staining in the retinal whole mount. In normal and rd mice, Lac Z-positive cells were located throughout the retina. However, larger numbers of Lac Z-positive cells were present at all ages examined in retinal explants from rd mice compared to normal mice. These data indicate a difference in transduction efficiency between normal and rd mice, especially after P12, and suggest efficient adenovirus-mediated gene transfer is more attainable in developing or degenerating retina. Thus, transduction efficiency in rd mice depends on the relationship between development, maturation and the degenerative state of the photoreceptor cells.