tabby and downless mutant mice have apparently identical defects in teeth, hair and sweat glands. Recently, genes responsible for these spontaneous mutations have been identified. downless (Dl) encodes Edar, a novel member of the tumour necrosis factor (TNF) receptor family, containing the characteristic extracellular cysteine rich fold, a single transmembrane region and a death homology domain close to the C terminus. tabby (Ta) encodes ectodysplasin-A (Eda) a type II membrane protein of the TNF ligand family containing an internal collagen-like domain. As predicted by the similarity in adult mutant phenotype and the structure of the proteins, we demonstrate that Eda and Edar specifically interact in vitro. We have compared the expression pattern of Dl and Ta in mouse development, taking the tooth as our model system, and find that they are not expressed in adjacent cells as would have been expected. Teeth develop by a well recorded series of epithelial-mesenchymal interactions, similar to those in hair follicle and sweat gland development, the structures found to be defective in tabby and downless mice. We have analysed the downless mutant teeth in detail, and have traced the defect in cusp morphology back to initial defects in the structure of the tooth enamel knot at E13. Significantly, the defect is distinct from that of the tabby mutant. In the tabby mutant, there is a recognisable but small enamel knot, whereas in the downless mutant the knot is absent, but enamel knot cells are organised into a different shape, the enamel rope, showing altered expression of signalling factors (Shh, Fgf4, Bmp4 and Wnt10b). By adding a soluble form of Edar to tooth germs, we were able to mimic the tabby enamel knot phenotype, demonstrating the involvement of endogenous Eda in tooth development. We could not, however, reproduce the downless phenotype, suggesting the existence of yet another ligand or receptor, or of ligand-independent activation mechanisms for Edar. Changes in the structure of the enamel knot signalling centre in downless tooth germs provide functional data directly linking the enamel knot with tooth cusp morphogenesis. We also show that the Lef1 pathway, thought to be involved in these mutants, functions independently in a parallel pathway.