Apoptosis is a genetically regulated form of cell death. Individual cells show condensed nuclear chromatin and cytoplasm, and biochemical analysis reveals fragmentation of the DNA. Ensuing cellular components, apoptotic bodies, are removed by macrophages or neighboring cells. Genes involved in the regulation of apoptosis as well as stimuli and signal transduction systems, are only beginning to be understood in the retina. Therefore, we developed a new in vivo model system for the investigation of events leading to apoptosis in the retina and the pigment epithelium. We induced apoptosis in retinal photoreceptors and the pigment epithelium of albino rats by exposure to 3000 lux of diffuse, cool white fluorescent light for short time periods of up to 120 minutes. Animals were killed at different time intervals during and after light exposure. The eyes were enucleated and the lower central retina was processed for light- and electron microscopy. DNA fragmentation was analysed in situ by TdT-mediated dUTP nick-end labeling (TUNEL) or by gel electrophoresis of total retinal DNA. We observed that the timing of apoptosis in the photoreceptors and pigment epithelium was remarkably different, the pigment epithelium showing a distinct delay of several hours before the onset of apoptosis. In photoreceptors, apoptosis was induced within 90 minutes of light exposure, with the morphological appearance of apoptosis preceding the fragmentation of DNA. In the pigment epithelium, the morphological appearance of apoptosis and DNA fragmentation were coincident. Different regulative mechanisms may lead to apoptotic cell death in the retinal photoreceptors and pigment epithelium. This in vivo model system will allow measurement of dose-responses, a potential spectral dependence and the molecular background of apoptotic mechanisms in the retina.