Midkine (MK) is the first cloned gene in a new family of heparin-binding growth/differentiation factors involved in the regulation of growth and differentiation. We have analyzed the expression of MK mRNA and protein during tooth development in mouse embryos and studied the regulation of MK expression and the biological effects of MK protein in organ cultures. MK expression was restricted and preferential in the tooth area as compared to the rest of the developing maxillary and mandibular processes suggesting specific functions for MK during tooth morphogenesis. MK mRNA and protein were expressed during all stages of tooth formation (initiation, morphogenesis, and cell differentiation), and shifts of expression were observed between the epithelial and mesenchymal tissue components. However, the expression of mRNA and protein showed marked differences at some stages suggesting paracrine functions for MK. Tissue recombination experiments showed that MK gene and protein expression are regulated by epithelial-mesenchymal interactions, and, moreover, that dental tissue induces the ectopic expression of MK protein in non-dental tissue. The expression of MK gene and protein in the mandibular arch mesenchyme from the tooth region were stimulated by local application of retinoic acid in beads. Cell proliferation was inhibited in dental mesenchyme around the beads releasing MK, but this effect was modulated by simultaneous application of FGF-2. Morphogenesis and cell differentiation were inhibited in tooth germs cultured in the presence of neutralizing antibodies for MK, whereas the development of other organs (e.g., salivary gland, kidney) was unaffected. These results suggest important roles for MK in the molecular cascade that regulates tooth development.