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Epidermal keratinocytes undergo a process of terminal differentiation or cornification that in many aspects resembles apoptosis. It is characterized by the elimination of cell nuclei within the granular layer, whereas the cytoplasm is transformed into horn cells. Premature death of keratinocytes can be induced by extrinsic factors such as UV irradiation. We investigated the time-dependent expression of apoptotic marker proteins in the skin of one healthy human volunteer after irradiation with a fourfold minimal erythema dose (MED) of UVB. The data were supplemented by including healthy skin areas of biopsies from patients UVB-irradiated for therapeutic reasons. Punch biopsies were analysed by in situ end-labelling (ISEL) for DNA strand breaks and by immunohistochemistry for expression of p53, bcl-2, active caspase-3 and its proform, and deoxyribonuclease I (DNase I). Keratinocytes with pyknotic nuclei were first detected 6 h after UVB exposure, and apoptotic keratinocytes (sunburn cells) 12 h after exposure. These aggregated to sunburn bodies after 24 h. In control skin, nuclei with DNA strand breaks were only occasionally detected in the granular layer but 6 h after UVB irradiation in the spinous layer. After 12 h, many sunburn cells were ISEL-positive and positively stained for active caspase-3, P53, and DNase I. Morphometric evaluation of the immunohistochemical data demonstrated that maximal upregulation of P53, DNase I and activation of caspase-3 occurred 12 h after irradiation and in advance of the peak of apoptotic cell death reached after 24 h as verified by ISEL. In contrast, strong Bcl-2 immunostaining appeared restricted to presumed melanocytes and basal cells but was not increased after UVB irradiation.