Apoptosis is a programmed cell death process that helps to regulate both T cell and B cell development. In this study, we have investigated the levels of apoptotic death in cells of the thymuses and spleens (white matter) of autoimmune MRL-lpr/lpr mice with progressive lymphadenopathy and SLE disease activity; we also examined the renal pathology in these animals. Fas is a cell surface receptor, which when activated initiates the sequence of events that lead to apoptosis. In MRL-lpr/lpr mice Fas is defective, so the competency for apoptosis may be reduced. In young animals of advancing age the thymuses enlarged until in 5-month-old females the average weight was three times that at 1 month, and spleen and kidney weights also increased in size disproportionately. At light microscope level apoptotic cells in tissue sections were counted using both routine eosin and haematoxylin staining (to identify them by their morphology) and in situ end-labelling of cells with DNA strand breaks; their presence was further confirmed by electron microscopy. As the mice aged, the numbers of apoptotic cells in thymic cortex, thymic medulla and spleen white pulp areas reduced significantly (P < 0.01-0.001), whereas in BALB/c normal controls they increased significantly (P < 0.05). These changes were coincident with the development of severe lupus, whose activity was assessed by measuring serum anti-ssDNA and anti-dsDNA antibody titres and urinary protein (albumin) level which were elevated significantly by 5 months of age (P < 0.001 for both ssDNA and dsDNA and P < 0.01 for urine albumin) compared with their younger counterparts. Thus, lymphoid organ enlargement, decrease in apoptotic indices, elevated serum anti-ssDNA and anti-dsDNA antibody levels, and impaired renal function coincided with the onset and severity of lupus disease in lpr mice. It seems likely that there is a causal relationship between defective deletion of autoreactive lymphoid cells, imperfect Fas-mediated apoptosis and development of murine SLE.