Regulation of the cell cycle is a critical aspect of cellular proliferation, differentiation, and transformation. In many cell types, the differentiation process is accompanied by a loss of proliferative capability, so that terminally differentiated cells become postmitotic and no longer progress through the cell cycle. In the experiments described here, the ocular lens has been used as a system to examine the role of the retinoblastoma protein (pRb) family in regulation of the cell cycle during differentiation. The ocular lens is an ideal system for such studies, since it is composed of just two cell types: epithelial cells, which are capable of proliferation, and fiber cells, which are postmitotic. In order to inactivate pRb in viable mice, genes encoding either a truncated version of simian virus 40 large T antigen or the E7 protein of human papillomavirus were expressed in a lens-specific fashion in transgenic mice. Lens fiber cells in the transgenic mice were found to incorporate bromodeoxyuridine, implying inappropriate entry into the cell cycle. Surprisingly, the lens fiber cells did not proliferate as tumor cells but instead underwent programmed cell death, resulting in lens ablation and microphthalmia. Analogous lens alterations did not occur in mice expressing a modified version of the truncated T antigen that was mutated in the binding domain for the pRb family. These experimental results indicate that the retinoblastoma protein family plays a crucial role in blocking cell cycle progression and maintaining terminal differentiation in lens fiber cells. Apoptotic cell death ensues when fiber cells are induced to remain in or reenter the cell cycle.