The induction of the p53 response to ionising radiation has been studied during murine development and in the adult animal. The response has been assessed by precise quantitative assay of p53 protein levels in tissues and by immunohistochemistry. Newly developed transgenic mice in which a lacZ transgene is driven by a p53 response element have also been used to directly assess the transcriptional activity of the induced protein. There is striking developmental control of the p53 response so that in early development all tissues accumulate high levels of p53 following radiation and indeed p53 is present at elevated levels in some unirradiated tissues. Later in development clear heterogeneity of the p53 response becomes apparent, both in terms of the responses of individual tissues and of cell populations, within those tissues. The study of lacZ transgene expression and the occurrence of apoptosis in different tissues that accumulate p53 protein point to a further level of control regulating the nature and degree of the downstream response to elevated levels of p53 in cells. These findings have important implications for the susceptibility of different tissue types to carcinogenic and other insults. The early expression of the p53 response is consistent with novel models of p53 function that suggest it may have evolved principally as a defense against teratogenic insult that permits plasticity of development.