Development of the metanephric kidney requires the concerted interaction of two tissues, the epithelium of the ureteric duct and the metanephric mesenchyme. Signals from the ureter induce the metanephric mesenchyme to condense and proliferate around the ureter tip, reciprocal signals from the mesenchyme induce the ureter tip to grow and to branch. Wnt genes encode secreted glycoproteins, which are candidate mediators of these signaling events. We have identified three Wnt genes with specific, non-overlapping expression patterns in the metanephric kidney, Wnt-4, Wnt-7b and Wnt-11. Wnt-4 is expressed in the condensing mesenchyme and the comma- and S-shaped bodies. Wnt-7b is expressed in the collecting duct epithelium from 13.5 days post coitum onward. Wnt-1l is first expressed in the nephric duct adjacent to the metanephric blastema prior to the outgrowth of the ureteric bud. Wnt-l1 expression in Danforth's short-tail mice suggests that signaling from the mesenchyme may regulate Wnt-ll activation. During metanephric development, Wnt-11 expression is confined to the tips of the branching ureter. Maintenance of this expression is independent of Wnt-4 signaling and mature mesenchymal elements in the kidney. Moreover, Wnt-ll expression is maintained in recombinants between ureter and lung mesenchyme suggesting that branching morphogenesis and maintenance of Wnt-ll expression are independent of metanephric mesenchyme-specific factors. Interference with proteoglycan synthesis leads to loss of Wnt-ll expression in the ureter tip. We suggest that Wnt-11 acts as an autocrine factor within the ureter epithelium and that its expression is regulated at least in part by proteoglycans.