Inhibitors of programmed cell death (apoptosis) may regulate tissue differentiation and aberrantly promote cell survival in neoplasia. A novel apoptosis inhibitor of the IAP gene family, designated survivin, was recently found in all of the most common human cancers but not in normal, terminally differentiated adult tissues. The expression of survivin in embryonic and fetal development was investigated. Immunohistochemistry and in situ hybridization studies demonstrated strong expression of survivin in several apoptosis-regulated fetal tissues, including the stem cell layer of stratified epithelia, endocrine pancreas, and thymic medulla, with a pattern that did not overlap with that of another apoptosis inhibitor, bcl-2. A sequence-specific antibody to survivin immunoblotted a single approximately 16.5-kd survivin band in human fetal lung, liver, heart, kidney, and gastrointestinal tract. In mouse embryo, prominent and nearly ubiquitous distribution of survivin was found at embryonic day (E)11.5, whereas at E15 to -21, survivin expression was restricted to the distal bronchiolar epithelium of the lung and neural-crest-derived cells, including dorsal root ganglion neurons, hypophysis, and the choroid plexus. These data suggest that expression of survivin in embryonic and fetal development may contribute to tissue homeostasis and differentiation independently of bcl-2. Aberrations of this developmental pathway may result in prominent re-expression of survivin in neoplasia and abnormally prolonged cell viability.