Expression of the different members of transcription factors Fos and Jun was examined in the developing rat brain. Constitutive expression of c-Fos, Fos-related antigens, Jun B and Jun D, as revealed with immunohistochemistry, is higher and more widely distributed in the developing rat brain than in the adult. Selective strong c-Jun expression is observed in the cytoplasm and nuclei of apoptotic cells during the whole process of naturally occurring (programmed) cell death. Cells expressing strong c-Jun immunoreactivity are undetermined cells, neurons and astrocytes. Selective c-Jun expression is also observed following ionizing radiation in rats aged 3 days. Induction of c-jun mRNA, as revealed with in situ hybridization, occurs between 5 and 15 min following gamma-irradiation. Strong c-Jun protein expression appears at 2 h, peaks at 6 h and decreases thereafter to reach normal levels 48 h after gamma-ray exposure. Strong c-Jun protein expression is coincidental with endonuclease activation, as revealed with the method of in situ labelling of nuclear DNA fragmentation, and is restricted to apoptotic cells. Cycloheximide injection at the time of irradiation blocks c-Jun expression, indicating that c-Jun immunoreactivity is attributable to de novo protein synthesis. These observations demonstrate in vivo selective strong c-Jun expression associated with programmed cell death and ionizing radiation-induced apoptosis in the developing rat brain.