Cell death occurs during early development in vivo and in vitro, although little is known about the mechanism of blastomere death and the relation to embryonic loss. Apoptosis, characterised by chromatin condensation, DNA fragmentation and membrane blebbing, occurs without damage to surrounding cells in contrast to necrosis. Bovine oocytes and in vitro fertilised embryos (total n = 449) were analysed for (1) DNA fragmentation using terminal deoxynucleotidyl transferase-mediated dUTP nick end labelling (TUNEL) and (2) morphological features of apoptosis. TUNEL labelling was detected in immature and mature oocytes (7%, n = 57 and 23%, n = 60, respectively), and at least one cell of 8- to 16-cell embryos (5%, n = 57), morulae/early blastocysts (79%, n = 39) and expanded/hatched blastocysts (100%, n = 48). In contrast, TUNEL labelling was not detected in zygotes (n = 61), 2-cell embryos (n = 46) or 3- to 7-cell embryos (n = 81). Chromatin condensation, nuclear fragmentation, absence of neighbouring cell destruction and extrusion of cells was frequent among advanced stage embryos. Although not detected during early cleavage under standard conditions, TUNEL labelling indicative of apoptosis was induced by treatment with 10 μM staurosporine for 30 h in 95% of cleavage stage embryos (n = 59). Determination of the expression and localisation of the p53 tumour suppressor gene using reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction and whole-mount immunofluorescence revealed that although p53 transcripts were present throughout early development, nuclear localisation of p53 protein could not be detected in any blastocyst suggesting p53-independent apoptosis. This study has shown that apoptosis is dependent on embryonic developmental stage after standard culture. This suggests that bovine embryos become more capable of accommodating damaged or abnormal cells as development proceeds.