We have demonstrated that continuous administration of a GnRH-agonist (GnRH-Ag) in the rat during early pregnancy suppressed plasma progesterone levels within 8 h after the commencement of treatment. The purpose of the present study is to evaluate the hypothesis that in vivo GnRH-Ag treatment induces apoptotic cell death during early pregnancy. Rats were treated individually on day 8 of pregnancy with 5 mu g/day of GnRH-Ag via an osmotic minipump. Sham-controlled rats received no treatment. Rats were killed at 4, 8 or 24 h after the treatment. At autopsy, blood samples were obtained and ovaries were removed. The corpora lutea (CL) from one ovary were removed for DNA laddering and RNA studies. As early as 8 h after the commencement of treatment, GnRH-Ag suppressed serum progesterone levels as expected, and increased the degree of DNA degradation in the CL that was time-dependent. At 24 h after the treatment, GnRH-Ag increased the Bax, a cell death gene, expression in the CL. Collectively, these data suggest that GnRH-Ag treatment induces apoptosis during early pregnancy in the rat.