We tested the hypothesis that the sensitivity of forming dental enamel to fluoride (F-) is ameloblast developmental stage-dependent and that enamel mineralization disturbances at the surface of fluorotic enamel are caused by damage to late-secretory- and transitional-stage ameloblasts. Four-day-old hamsters received a single intraperitoneal dose of 2.5-20 mg NaF/kg body weight and were examined, 24 h later, by histology and histochemistry. A single dose of >or=5 mg of NaF/kg induced the formation of a hyper- followed by a hypomineralized band in the secretory enamel, without changing the ameloblast structure. At 10 mg of NaF/kg, cystic lesions became apparent under isolated populations of distorted late-secretory- and transitional-stage ameloblasts. Staining with von Kossa stain showed that the enamel under these lesions was hypermineralized. At 20 mg of NaF/kg, cystic lesions containing necrotic cells were also found in the early stages of secretory amelogenesis and were also accompanied with hypermineralization of the enamel surface. We concluded that the sensitivity to F- is ameloblast developmental stage-dependent. Groups of transitional ameloblasts are most sensitive, followed by those at early secretory stages. These data suggest that a F-induced increase in cell death in the transitional-stage ameloblasts accompanies the formation of cystic lesions, which may explain the formation of enamel pits seen clinically in erupted teeth.