Single ultraviolet (u.v.) irradiation of mammalian cells in culture evokes the transcriptional activation of various proto-oncogenes, among them members of the fos/jun family which are known to play an important role in cell proliferation and differentiation. u.v. exposure of mammalian skin results in growth arrest and cell death followed by hyperproliferation of epidermal cells. To obtain information in vivo about a possible relationship between u.v.-induced proto-oncogene expression and cellular alterations, we have analysed the expression of c-fos, fosB, c-jun, junB, bcl-2 and bax in rat epidermis after single and chronic u.v. irradiation. We present data demonstrating that the transcripts of these genes are constitutively expressed in the epidermis and that expression is differentially modulated by u.v. exposure. Single u.v. irradiation causes a rapid and sustained increase in c-jun, junB and c-fos mRNA and a decline in bcl-2 transcripts, whereas expression of bax remained unchanged. c-Fos and c-Jun immunoreactivity was localized throughout the epidermal cell layers 1.5 h after single irradiation, but restricted to basal cells at 48 h suggesting an involvement in both u.v.-induced apoptosis and hyperproliferation. 48 h after chronic exposure a significantly higher induction and a totally different pattern of epidermal proto-oncogene expression was detectable which may be associated with malignancy. Superfusion of rat skin with c-fos antisense oligodeoxynucleotides inhibited the increase in c-Fos immunolabeled epidermal cells 1.5 h after single u.v. irradiation demonstrating that antisense oligodeoxynucleotides are capable of penetrating mammalian skin and modulating the u.v. response in vivo. However, suppression of the early c-Fos activation did not significantly affect the formation of sunburn cells in the u.v.-exposed epidermis. Thus, c-Fos does not seem to play a major role in u.v.-induced apoptosis or other members of the fos/jun family may compensate for a loss in c-Fos.