Ionizing radiation induces p53-dependent apoptosis in the spleen, providing a model system to study p53 regulated events in a normal cell type. We have developed an in vivo model that identifies genetic differences in the regulation of p53-mediated apoptosis and addresses whether altered post-translational events in the p53-p21/Rb axis modulate the sensitivity of cells to radiation-induced cell death in vivo. Splenocytes from mice with distinct genetic backgrounds (DBA/2 and C57BL/6) exhibit differences in the rate of apoptosis. Whilst no obvious strain differences in protein levels of Bcl-2 or the cyclin-CDKs were observed, early post-translational regulatory events in the p53-p21/Rb axis showed striking differences in the two mouse strains. Cells from C57BL/6 animals undergo more rapid apoptosis after irradiation resulting from elevated levels and rapid induction of p53, pronounced Rb-cleavage, and the absence of a sustained induction of p21. In contrast, cells from DBA/2 animals have a reduced rate of apoptosis following irradiation with elevated levels of hyperphosphorylated Rb and a sustained induction of the p21 protein that is coincident with the C-terminal phosphorylation of p53. These data suggest that quantitative differences in the level of p21 protein can affect the rate of apoptosis in vivo, consistent with the view that p21 is an anti-apoptotic effector of p53. However, striking differences in the Rb protein-caspase cleavage or hyperphosphorylation-in the same cell type, but in different genetic backgrounds, demonstrates that p53-dependent apoptosis can be modulated in vivo by genetic factors that impinge upon the pro- or anti-apoptotic potential of Rb. In addition, we show that Rb cleavage is p53-dependent and that its phosphorylation status can be uncoupled from p21 expression. This study highlights the possibility that genetic factors can be identified that affect differential sensitivity of cells to ionizing radiation in vivo.