Apoptosis has been shown to be involved in several processes during embryogenesis, but the ontogeny of apoptosis during lung development has not been studied. The goals of the current study were to determine if apoptosis occurs during lung development, and to determine the ontogeny of the changes in apoptosis that occur. We studied the ontogeny of apoptosis in vivo using lungs from 14-18-d gestation fetal rats, newborn rats, and 1-d-, 2-d-, 5-d-, and 10-d-old rat pups. Apoptosis was assessed by electron microscopy and the terminal deoxyribonucleotidyl transferase dUTP nick end-labeling assay. We compared the in vivo results with explants of 14-d gestation fetal rat lung placed in culture for 1-4 d because the biochemical development of the lung in organ culture has been shown to closely parallel the development of the lung in vivo. We found apoptosis of mesenchymal cells at the periphery of distal lung buds in early fetal lung(14-16-d gestation). Apoptosis of both mesenchyme and epithelium was present in later fetal lung (18-d gestation). There were no qualitative differences in apoptosis between in vivo fetal lung and explant cultures of fetal lung. There was a 14-fold increase in apoptosis at birth and in the first postnatal day of life (9-12% of cells) compared with fetal lung (0.6-1% of cells). This was followed by a rapid decline in the percentage of apoptotic cells to fetal levels at postnatal d 2-10. We conclude that apoptosis occurs in a spatially, temporally, and cell-specific manner during lung development. The number of cells undergoing apoptosis increases dramatically in the first day after birth.