The c-ret proto-oncogene encodes a receptor tyrosine kinase whose normal function has yet to be determined. To begin to investigate the potential role of this gene in vertebrate development, we have isolated cDNA clones representing the murine c-ret gene, and have analyzed the pattern of expression during mouse embryogenesis, using northern blotting, in situ hybridization to histological sections and whole-mount hybridization histochemistry. c-ret transcripts were detected beginning at day 8.5 of embryogenesis, and were observed in a number of cell lineages in the developing peripheral and central nervous systems, as well as in the excretory system. In the cranial region at day 8.5-9.5, c-ret mRNA was restricted to a population of neural crest cells migrating from rhombomere 4 and forming the anlage of the facioacoustic ganglion, as well as to a closely associated domain of surface ectoderm and pharyngeal endoderm. At later stages (10.5-14.5 days), c-ret mRNA was observed in all cranial ganglia. In the peripheral nervous system of the trunk, c-ret was expressed in the autonomic ganglia and in subsets of cells in the dorsal root ganglia. In the enteric nervous system, c-ret was expressed in the presumptive enteric neuroblasts of the vagal crest (day 9.0-11.5), and in the myenteric ganglia of the gut (day 13.5-14.5). c-ret mRNA was observed in several regions of the central nervous system, including the undifferentiated neuroepithelial cells of the ventral neural tube (8.5 days), the motor neurons in the spinal cord and the hindbrain (10.5-14.5 days), the embryonic neuroretina (day 13.5) and the layers of the postnatal retina containing ganglion, amacrine and horizontal cells. Outside the nervous system, c-ret was expressed in the nephric (Wolffian) duct at day 8.5-10.5, the ureteric bud epithelium (but not the surrounding metanephric mesenchyme) at day 11.0-11.5, and the growing tips of the renal collecting ducts (but not the previously formed, subcortical portions of the collecting ducts, or the mesenchyme-derived renal vesicles) at day 13.5-17.5. Our results suggest that the c-ret gene may encode the receptor for a factor involved in the proliferation, migration, differentiation or survival of a variety of neuronal cell lineages, as well as in inductive interactions during organogenesis of the kidney.