Although genetic background is acknowledged as a potentially important determinant of mutant phenotypes, publications on genetically modified mice far outnumber those on progenitor strains. We have recently reported major differences in basal anxiety levels (elevated plus-maze & light/dark exploration) among three strains (C57BL/6JOlaHsd, 129/SvEv and 129S2/SvHsd) employed as progenitor stock in European laboratories (Rodgers et al. in press). Furthermore, the phenotypes of these inbred strains differed significantly from that of an outbred strain (Swiss-Webster) commonly used in behavioural pharmacology. In view of these findings, the present study assessed possible differences in the anxiolytic efficacy of chlordiazepoxide (0, 7.5 & 15.0 mg/kg, IP) in three of these strains (Swiss-Webster (SW), C57BL/6JOlaHsd (C57) & 129S2/SvHsd (129)). Experimentally naive mice were exposed to the elevated plus-maze, sessions were videotaped and behaviour analysed using ethological software. The performance of control subjects confirmed significant strain differences in basal levels of activity (SW > C57 > 129) and anxiety-related behaviours (129 = SW > C57), with hypolocomotion dominating the 129 profile. SW mice displayed an anxioselective response to both doses of chlordiazepoxide (CDP), with significant reductions in open arm avoidance and risk assessment observed in the absence of any change in general activity. In direct contrast, the lower dose of CDP (7.5 mg/kg) was without effect in either inbred strain, whereas treatment with 15.0 mg/kg induced a profile indicative of muscle relaxation/mild sedation in C57 mice and virtually abolished all behavioural activity in 129 mice. Although the absence of an anxiolytic response to CDP in C57 mice may be attributed to their low basal anxiety levels, the profile of 129 mice strongly suggests an abnormality in benzodiazepine/GABAA receptor function. The implications of these findings for research on mutant mice are discussed.