The N-myc proto-oncogene is expressed during embryogenesis, suggesting that it plays a role in normal development. Since the myc-family oncogenes have been implicated in the control of cell growth, the embryonic expression may reflect rapid proliferation known to occur in development. Alternatively, N-myc expression may be involved in specific differentiation stages. In many embryonic tissues, early and late differentiation events occur in different locations. By in situ hybridization of tissue sections, we now demonstrate a restricted expression of N-myc mRNA to a few tissues and to areas where the first differentiation stages occur. N-myc expression was most strongly expressed in the developing kidney, hair follicles, and in various parts of the central nervous system. In these tissues, expression was restricted to a few cell lineages. In all lineages, expression was confined to early differentiation stages, and, at onset of overt differentiation, the level of expression decreased dramatically. Several rapidly proliferating tissues showed very little, if any, N-myc expression. In the brain, post-mitotic but not yet differentiated cells expressed high levels of N-myc mRNA. Therefore, N-myc expression is not a simple marker for proliferation in the embryo. Rather, N-myc expression seems to be a feature of early differentiation stages of some cell lineages in kidney, brain, and hair follicles, regardless of the proliferative status of the cell. The results raise the possibility that N-myc may participate in the control of these early differentiation events.

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