Transgenic Tg.AC (v-Ha-ras) mice develop skin tumors in response to specific carcinogens and tumor promoters. The Tg.AC mouse carries the coding sequence of v-Ha ras, linked to a ζ-globin promoter and an SV40 polyadenylation signal sequence. The transgene confers on these mice the property of genetically initiated skin. This study examines the age-dependent sensitivity of the incidence of skin papillomas in Tg.AC mice exposed to topically applied 12-O-tetradecanoylphorbol-13-acetate (TPA) treatment, full thickness skin wounding or UV radiation. Skin tumor incidence and multiplicity were strongly age-dependent, increasing with increasing age of the animal when first treated at 5, 10, 21 or 32 weeks of age. Furthermore, the temporal induction of transgene expression in keratinocytes isolated from TPA-treated mouse skin was also influenced by the age of the mice. Transgene expression was seen as early as 14 days after the start of TPA treatment in mice that were 10-32 weeks of age, but was not detected in similarly treated 5-week old mice. When isolated keratinocytes were fractionated by density gradient centrifugation the highest transgene expression was found in the denser basal keratinocytes. Transgene expression could be detected in the denser keratinocyte fraction as early as 9 days from start of TPA treatment in 32-week old mice. Using flow cytometry, a positive correlation was observed between expression of the v-Ha-ras transgene and enriched expression of the cell surface protein β1-integrin, a putative marker of epidermal stem cells. This result suggests that, in the Tg.AC mouse, an age-dependent sensitivity to tumor promotion and the correlated induction of transgene expression are related to changes in cellular development in the follicular compartment of the skin.