Injection of recombinant mouse TNF into mice is known to induce a shrinkage of the duodenal villi, which becomes evident 30-90 min later and is associated with a detachment of enterocytes in the lumen. These cells can be collected by lavage and are all apoptotic, i.e. hypodiploid as seen by flow cytometric analysis. Thus the count of detached cells was used as an evaluation of the TNF-induced cell loss and apoptosis in the mucosa. TNF injection induced a cell loss of similar magnitude in wild-type (+/+) or in mice lacking the TNF receptor (TNFR)2 (p75, TNFR2-/-), while mice lacking the TNFR1 (p55, TNFR1-/-) were completely resistant to this effect. TNF increased the expression of p53 tumor suppressor gene in the enterocytes from the crypts but not from the villi, as seen by Western blots and histochemistry. TNF increased the expression of p53 in both TNFR2-/- and TNFR1-/- mice. Furthermore, enterocyte cell loss was not attenuated in p53-/- mice. The results indicate that TNF, acting on its receptor 1, induces an apoptotic detachment of the enterocytes from the tip of the villi (i.e. the old enterocytes), while in the enterocytes from the crypts (the young enterocytes) TNF increases, via either TNFR1 or TNFR2, the expression of p53, without inducing apoptosis.