Differential display of hamster mRNA identified a fragment present in normal pancreatic duct cells that is not expressed in pancreatic duct carcinoma cells. Sequence analysis showed an 88% and 82% identity, respectively, to the cDNA of the canine and human tight junction zo-2 gene. Semi-quantitative RT-PCR analysis of human ZO-2 revealed a striking difference in the expression of various regions of the ZO-2 transcript in normal and neoplastic cells and the presence of an abnormality at the 5'-end of mRNA. RACE analysis identified 2 human ZO-2 mRNAs that encode proteins of different lengths, designated as ZO-2A and ZO-2C. The difference between the 2 forms of ZO-2 is the absence of 23 amino acid residues at the N terminus of ZO-2C compared with ZO-2A. Although ZO-2C was expressed in normal pancreatic cells and a majority of neoplastic tissues analyzed, ZO-2A was undetectable except in one case in all of the pancreatic adenocarcinomas analyzed. This suggests the presence of a yet to be identified motif important for cell-growth regulation within the 23-amino acid residue N-terminal peptide of ZO-2A, MPVRGDRGFPPRRELSGWLRAPG.