The ability of four mutagenic/carcinogenic chemicals administered as single doses to induce a programmed form of cell death (apoptosis) in the BDF1 mouse large bowel was studied and compared with a previous study on the small intestine using the same mice. The number of apoptotic cells was counted following treatment with the direct-acting agents N-nitroso-N-methylurea (NMU) and N-nitroso-N-ethylurea (NEU) and two agents which require metabolic activation 1,2-dimethylhydrazine (DMH) and N-nitrosodimethylamine (NDMA). DMH (80 mg/kg) was the most effective at inducing acute cell death and this was closely followed by NMU (200 mg/kg). The least effective agent in the large bowel was NDMA. The peak yield of apoptosis occurred between 4 h (NEU) and 8 h (DMH) after treatment. An analysis of the changing shapes of the frequency plots of apoptosis at each cell position in the crypt at various times after exposure permits an estimate to be made of the position in the crypt of the primary target cells for the cytotoxic action at time t = 0. For the agents studied, this is in the range of the 5th to the 10th position from the base of the crypt. This distribution for the target cells for apoptotic cell death is not coincident with that for the presumptive stem cells, which is at cell position 1 or 2. Comparisons with results previously obtained in the small intestine (ileum) of the same mice show that the relative cytotoxic effectiveness of the four agents differs. Furthermore, the position of the target cells is at about the 4th position from the bottom of the crypt in the ileum, and here the distribution is coincident with that presumed for the stem cells. Our interpretation of the data is that damaged cells in the stem cell region of the small bowel are removed by the activation of a cell suicide programme, which effectively removes potentially harmful genetic alterations. In contrast, in the large bowel, cell death is not initiated particularly strongly in the stem cell region but tends to occur higher in the crypt. The absence of this selective deletion process may result in the perpetuation of deleterious mutations in the colonic stem cell population and this may explain in part, the higher incidence of cancers observed in the large bowel.