Developmental expression of the c-kit proto-oncogene, a receptor tyrosine kinase encoded by the W locus, was investigated by in situ hybridization in normal mouse embryos. Early after implantation transcripts were detectable only in the maternal placenta (6 1/2-7 1/2 days p.c.). Subsequently (8 1/2 days p.c.) numerous ectodermal (neural tube, sensory placodes) and endodermal (embryonic gut) derivatives expressed c-kit. Later transcripts were detected also in the blood islands of the yolk sac and in the embryonic liver, the main sites of embryonic hemopoiesis. Around midgestation, transcripts accumulated in the branchial pouches and also in primordial germ cells of the genital ridges. This complex pattern of expression remained characteristic also later in gestation, when c-kit was expressed in highly differentiated structures of the craniofacial area, in presumptive melanoblasts and in the CNS. In the adult ovary, maternal c-kit transcripts were detected. They were present in the oocytes of both immature and mature ovarian follicles, but not in the male germ line, where c-kit expression may be down regulated. Thus, c-kit activity is complex and appears in multiple tissues including those that also display defects in mutations at the W locus where c-kit is encoded. Correlation between W phenotypes and c-kit expression, as well as the regulation of the complex and multiple expression of polypeptide growth factors and receptors, is discussed.

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