The aim of this study was to determine the apoptotic cell death in 92 thyroid carcinomas of different histotypes (42 papillary, PTC; 12 poorly differentiated, PDC: 21 undifferentiated, UC; and 17 medullary, MC) by terminal deoxynucleotidyl transferase (TdT)-mediated dUTP-digoxigenin nick end labelling (TUNEL). Apoptotic index (Al, evaluated as a percentage of TUNEL-positive cells of neoplastic cells) was calculated in each tumour. The AI was very low in all subtypes of thyroid carcinoma, ranging from a median value of 0.2 in PTC to 1.4 in UC. The proliferative activity was determined by immunohistochemistry using monoclonal antibody, MIB-1. The percentage of proliferating cells was significantly different among the histotypes, increasing with tumour aggressiveness (from the mean value of 3.1 for PTC to 5.6 for PDC and 51.8 for UC). In addition, the ratio between proliferative activity and apoptosis was significantly higher in UC than in the other histotypes. The expression of bcl-2 and p53 protein (important in the modulation of cell death) was correlated (bcl-2, inverse correlation, r2 = 0.1, P = 0.04; p53, direct correlation, r2 = 0.11, P = 0.02) with apoptotic index in PTC.