Tubular cells are important targets during acute renal allograft rejection and induction of apoptosis might be a mechanism of tubular cell destruction. Susceptibility to induction of apoptosis is regulated by the homologous Bcl-2 and Bax proteins. Expression of Bcl-2 and Bax is regulated by p53, which down-regulates expression of Bcl-2, while simultaneously up-regulating expression of Bax. We studied apoptotic tubular cell death in 10 renal allograft biopsies from transplant recipients with acute rejection by in situ end-labelling and the DNA-binding fluorochrome propidium iodide. Tubular expression of p53, Bcl-2 and Bax was studies by immunohistochemistry. Five renal allograft biopsies from transplant recipients with uncomplicated clinical course and histologically normal renal tissue present in nephrectomy specimens from 4 patients with renal adenocarcinoma served as control specimens. Apoptotic cells and apoptotic bodies were detected in tubular epithelia and tubular lumina in 9 out of 10 acute rejection biopsies. In control renal tissue, apoptotic cells were detected in 1 biopsy only. Compared to control renal tissue, acute renal allograft rejection was, furthermore, associated with a shift in the ratio of Bcl-2 to Bax in favour of Bax in tubular epithelia and increased expression of p53 in tubular nuclei. These observations demonstrate that apoptosis contributes in part to tubular cell destruction during acute renal allograft rejection. In accordance, the shift in the ratio of Bcl-2 to Bax in favour of Bax indicates increased susceptibility of tubular epithelia to induction of apoptosis. The expression of p53 in tubular nuclei during acute renal allograft rejection indicates the presence of damaged DNA, which can be important in initiation of part of the observed apoptosis. These findings elucidate part of the mechanisms controlling apoptotic tubular cell death during acute renal allograft rejection.