The mechanism controlling luteal regression in primates is unknown but may involve cell death by apoptosis. Marmoset ovaries containing corpora lutea were studied at different stages of the normal ovarian cycle. Two additional groups of animals underwent induced luteolysis with either the prostaglandin F(2α) analogue, cloprostenol, or the GnRH antagonist, antarelix, at the mid-luteal phase. Apoptosis in ovarian sections was estimated both by counting the number of cells exhibiting morphological features of apoptosis and by in situ labelling the 3' ends of the DNA fragments with digoxigenin-11-dUTP. Apoptosis was found to be significantly increased in corpora lutea in the early follicular phase (equivalent to the later stage of luteal lifespan) compared with the mid-luteal phase corpora lutea, as judged by either computerized morphometry or 3' end labelling. Apoptosis was also increased by the administration of either cloprostenol or antarelix when using the 3' end labelling end point, but only after cloprostenol when using computerized morphometry. A further form of cell death, characterized by the formation of cytoplasmic vacuoles, was also observed in corpora lutea undergoing both induced and spontaneous regression. These results demonstrate that apoptosis within the primate corpus luteum is increased in both physiological and induced luteal regression. In addition, they show that an alternative form of cell death is involved in both spontaneous and induced luteal regression, although the relative importance of the two mechanisms remains to be determined.