Cathepsin D (EC220.127.116.11) is an aspartyl endopeptidase involved in lysosomal proteolysis. Its functional role is uncertain. This study was undertaken to determine the cellular and subcellular distribution of cathepsin D in the normal rat ventral prostate and its possible role in the castration-induced atrophy of the gland. Cathepsin D was localized immunohistochemically to perinuclear lysosomes in secretory cells, in capillary endothelial cells, and, occasionally, in stromal cells of the untreated animal. Castration resulted in an increased number of cathepsin D-positive cells in the stroma within 24 hr. By 48 hr after castration autophagolysosomes formed in secretory cells and apoptotic bodies appeared in the epithelium. Although apoptotic bodies generally contained immunoreactive cathepsin D, a subpopulation of larger apoptotic bodies, which commonly rested on the basement membrane and contained multiple inclusions, were more variable in cathepsin D expression. The induction of cathepsin D in dendritic cells basally oriented in the epithelium was noted at 4 days of castration. These cells had a phagocytic phenotype, were distributed periodically along the basement membrane, and were not found in ductal epithelia. Treatment with actinomycin D or hydrocortisone to reduce the rate of regression of the ventral prostate blocked the appearance of these cathepsin D-positive, basally oriented epithelial cells. Our data indicate that this cathepsin D-positive, phagocytic cell differentiates from a cell resident in the prostatic epithelium. We suggest that it differentiates from basal cells in the secretory tubuloalveolar portion of the gland and that it is involved in the destruction of regressed secretory cells.