An in vivo neonatal rat kidney model was used to study an association between expression and localization of the retinoblastoma tumor-suppressor gene (Rb), or its protein product (pRb), and localization of radiation-induced apoptosis. The rat kidney has two distinct zones of differentiation at birth-an outer nephrogenic zone, in which cells are undifferentiated and new nephrons are forming, and a differentiated zone internal to this zone that has essentially the adult kidney form. At 6 h after radiation (5 Gy), high levels of relatively synchronous apoptosis are induced in the nephrogenic zone, with little effect on the differentiated zone, and proliferation in the nephrogenic zone is almost totally inhibited by radiation treatment, again with little effect in the differentiated area. We have used our knowledge of this model to analyze control (sham-treated) and irradiated renal tissue for Rb mRNA transcript levels and localization (Northern blot and in situ hybridization (ISH)), pRb expression (Western blot and immunolocalization), apoptosis and mitosis (light and electron microscopy, and DNA gel electrophoresis for apoptosis), and cells in S-phase ([3H]thymidine uptake and autoradiography). Northern blots showed no detectable alteration in Rb transcript levels between control and irradiated tissues, whereas Western blots indicated increased expression of pRb in protein extracted from irradiated kidney compared with controls. ISH confirmed that Rb transcripts were not substantially altered in the nephrogenic and differentiated zones in control versus irradiated renal tissue. Immunolocalization of pRb demonstrated little effect in the differentiated zone, but in the nephrogenic zone pRb expression was increased, especially the S-shaped prenephrons, and was also found in many, but not all, apoptotic cells in this zone. The results link radiation-induced apoptosis and increased pRb expression in a zone of the neonatal kidney having a low level of cell differentiation.