Cytotactin, an extracellular glycoprotein found in neural and nonneural tissues, influences a variety of cellular phenomena, particularly cell adhesion and cell migration. Northern and Western blot analysis and in situ hybridization were used to determine localization of alternatively spliced forms of cytotactin in neural and nonneural tissues using a probe (CT) that detected all forms of cytotactin mRNA, and one (VbVc) that detected two of the differentially spliced repeats homologous to the type III repeats of fibronectin. In the brain, the levels of mRNA and protein increased from E8 through E15 and then gradually decreased until they were barely detectable by P3. Among the three cytotactin mRNAs (7.2, 6.6, and 6.4 kb) detected in the brain, the VbVc probe hybridized only to the 7.2-kb message. In isolated cerebella, the 220-kD polypeptide and 7.2-kb mRNA were the only cytotactin species present at hatching, indicating that the 220-kD polypeptide is encoded by the 7.2-kb message that contains the VbVc alternatively spliced insert. In situ hybridization showed cytotactin mRNA in glia and glial precursors in the ventricular zone throughout the central nervous system. In all regions of the nervous system, cytotactin mRNAs were more transient and more localized than the polypeptides. For example, in the radial glia, cytotactin mRNA was observed in the soma whereas the protein was present externally along the glial fibers. In the telencephalon, cytotactin mRNAs were found in a narrow band at the edge of a larger region in which the protein was wide-spread. Hybridization with the VbVc probe generally overlapped that of the CT probe in the spinal cord and cerebellum, consistent with the results of Northern blot analysis. In contrast, in the outermost tectal layers, differential hybridization was observed with the two probes. In nonneural tissues, hybridization with the CT probe, but not the VbVc probe, was detected in chondroblasts, tendinous tissues, and certain mesenchymal cells in the lung. In contrast, hybridization with both probes was observed in smooth muscle and lung epithelium. Both epithelium and mesenchyme expressed cytotactin mRNA in varying combinations: in the choroid plexus, only epithelial cells expressed cytotactin mRNA; in kidney, only mesenchymal cells; and in the lung, both of these cell types contained cytotactin mRNA. These spatiotemporal changes during development suggest that the synthesis of the various alternatively spliced cytotactin mRNAs is responsive to tissue-specific local signals and prompt a search for functional differences in the various molecular forms of the protein.