Because the Wnt-4, -7b, and -11 genes are expressed in metanephric kidneys and code for secreted glycoproteins that may serve as mediators of the transformation of renal mesenchyme to epithelium, we investigated the pattern of Wnt gene expression in late metanephrogenesis and after ureteral obstruction. Newborn and 10-, 20-, and 60-day-old rats underwent complete unilateral ureteral ligation or sham operation. The kidneys were collected bilaterally 1, 5, 10, 20, or 30 days later. RNase protection assays were used to quantify the amounts of mRNA encoding Wnt-4, -7b, and -11, E-cadherin, and cytokeratin-19. Renal development was assessed by histologic characterization of vimentin, cytokeratin, E-cadherin, and beta-catenin distribution. During normal development, the amounts of mRNA encoding Wnt-4 and Wnt-11 increased during gestation and then abruptly decreased after the completion of metanephrogenesis, 15 days after birth. In contrast, the amounts of mRNA encoding Wnt-7b, E-cadherin, and cytokeratin-19 increased during development and into adulthood. In neonatally obstructed kidneys, the expression of Wnt-4 was abnormally maintained when obstruction was induced before the completion of renal development and was reactivated when obstruction was induced after the completion of metanephrogenesis. Wnt-7b expression was minimally affected and Wnt-11 expression was only transiently affected by obstruction. In neonatally obstructed kidneys, the differentiation of mesenchyme to epithelium failed to proceed normally, with the majority of cells maintaining vimentin expression and some differentiated epithelial cells reverting to vimentin expression. In addition, the expression of E-cadherin and cytokeratin was increased in epithelial cells. Changes in the expression of Wnt genes were correlated with histologic changes. This study suggests that Wnt-4 and -11 are likely to be important mediators of the transformation of mesenchyme to epithelium in the kidney. Obstruction induced during metanephrogenesis disrupts the normal pattern of Wnt-4, -7b, and -11 expression and interferes with the normal transformation process in developing kidneys, by maintaining the mesenchymal component and inducing the transformation of epithelium to mesenchyme.