Apoptosis is a mechanism of cell death operative in the normal development and regulation of vertebrate tissues and organ cellularity. During the postnatal development of the mouse cerebellum, extensive granule neuron apoptosis occurs that may regulate the final granule cell to Purkinje cell stoichiometry observed in the adult. Cerebellar granule cells are highly sensitive to genotoxic agents such as gamma- irradiation and methylazoxymethanol during the first 2 weeks of postnatal development. We demonstrate that ionizing radiation induces extensive cerebellar granule cell death via apoptosis in vivo. In p53 null mice, however, the cerebellar granule cells do not undergo apoptosis in response to gamma-irradiation. In mice heterozygous for the p53 allele, the granule cells apoptosis is delayed, indicating an intermediate response. The developmental apoptosis of cerebellar granule cells, however, occurs similarly in wild-type and p53 null mice. Therefore, neurons undergo p53-dependent and p53-independent apoptosis, depending upon the initiating stimulus that triggers DNA fragmentation. In contrast to x-ray damage, the extensive death of cerebellar granule cells induced by methylazoxymethanol was found to be independent of the DNA fragmentation characteristic of apoptosis, and was also independent of expression of p53. Ablation of neuron progenitor cells with genotoxic agents may occur by p53-dependent apoptosis or by p53-independent mechanisms not associated with DNA fragmentation.