The mouse preimplantation embryo has been used to investigate the de novo synthesis of tight junctions during trophectoderm epithelial differentiation. We have shown previously that individual components of the tight junction assemble in a temporal sequence, with membrane assembly of the cytoplasmic plaque protein ZO-1 occurring 12 hours before that of cingulin. Subsequently, two alternatively spliced isoforms of ZO-1 (alpha+ and alpha-), differing in the presence or absence of an 80 residue alpha domain were reported. Here, the temporal and spatial expression of these ZO-1 isoforms has been investigated at different stages of preimplantation development. ZO-1alpha- mRNA was present in oocytes and all preimplantation stages, whilst ZO-1alpha+ transcripts were first detected in embryos at the morula stage, close to the time of blastocoele formation. mRNAs for both isoforms were detected in trophectoderm and ICM cells. Immunoprecipitation of 35S-labelled embryos also showed synthesis of ZO-1alpha- throughout cleavage, whereas synthesis of ZO-1alpha+ was only apparent from the blastocyst stage. In addition, 33P-labelling showed both isoforms to be phosphorylated at the early blastocyst stage. The pattern and timing of membrane assembly of the two isoforms was also distinct. ZO-1alpha- was initially seen as punctate sites at the cell-cell contacts of compact 8-cell embryos. These sites then coalesced laterally along the membrane until they completely surrounded each cell with a zonular belt by the late morula stage. ZO-1alpha+ however, was first seen as perinuclear foci in late morulae before assembling at the tight junction. Membrane assembly of ZO-1alpha+ first occurred during the 32-cell stage and was zonular just prior to the early blastocyst stage. Immunostaining indicative of both isoforms was restricted to the trophectoderm lineage. Membrane assembly of ZO-1alpha+ and blastocoele formation were sensitive to brefeldin A, an inhibitor of intracellular trafficking beyond the Golgi complex. In addition, the tight junction transmembrane protein occludin co-localised with ZO-1alpha+ at the perinuclear sites in late morulae and at the newly assembled cell junctions. These results provide direct evidence from a native epithelium that ZO-1 isoforms perform distinct roles in tight junction assembly. Moreover, the late expression of ZO-1alpha+ and its apparent intracellular interaction with occludin may act as a final rate-limiting step in the synthesis of the tight junction, thereby regulating the time of junction sealing and blastocoele formation in the early embryo.