The role of protein synthesis in apoptosis was investigated in the retina of developing rats. In the neonatal retina, a ganglion cell layer, containing neurons with long, centrally projecting axons, is separated from an immature neuroblastic layer by a plexiform layer. This trilaminar pattern subsequently evolves to five alternating cell and plexiform layers that constitute the mature retina and a wave of programmed neuron death sweeps through the layers. Apoptosis due to axon damage was found in ganglion cells of retinal explants within 2 days in vitro and was prevented by inhibition of protein synthesis. Simultaneously, protein synthesis blockade induced apoptosis among the undamaged cells of the neuroblastic layer, which could be selectively prevented by an increase in intracellular cyclic AMP. Both the prevention and the induction of apoptosis among ganglion cells or neuroblastic cells, respectively, occurred after inhibition of protein synthesis in vivo. The results show the coexistence of two mechanisms of apoptosis within the organized retinal tissue. One mechanism is triggered in ganglion cells by direct damage and depends on the synthesis of proteins acting as positive modulators of apoptosis. A distinct, latent mechanism is found among immature neuroblasts and may be repressed by continuously synthesized negative modulators, or by an increase in intracellular cyclic AMP.