In vitro and in vivo results are consistent with a critical role for NKX2.1, an epithelial homeodomain transcription factor in lung morphogenesis. Nkx2.1 null mutant embryos die at birth due to respiratory insufficiency caused by profoundly abnormal lungs. However, the precise role of NKX2.1 in the multistep process of lung structural morphogenesis and differentiation of various pulmonary cell types remains unknown. In the current study, we tested the hypothesis that the mutant lungs do not undergo branching morphogenesis beyond the formation of the mainstem bronchi and therefore consist solely of dilated tracheobronchial structures. To test this hypothesis, we determined the spatial and temporal expression pattern of a number of extracellular matrix (ECM) proteins and their cellular receptors, including alpha-integrins, laminin, and collagen type IV. Although laminin is expressed in the mutant Nkx2.1(-/-) lungs, expression of alpha-integrins and collagen type IV is significantly reduced or absent. In addition, examination of regionally specific expression of differentially spliced Vegf (vascular endothelial growth factor) transcripts, clearly indicates that the epithelial phenotype of the Nkx2.1(-/-) lungs is similar to the tracheobronchial epithelium. In contrast to wild-type lungs in which both Vegf1 and Vegf3 are developmentally expressed, Nkx2.1(-/-) lungs are characterized by predominant expression of Vegf1 and reduced or absent Vegf3. A similar pattern of Vegf expression is also observed in isolated tracheo-bronchial tissue. The sum of these findings suggest that at least two separate pathways may exist in embryonic lung morphogenesis: proximal lung morphogenesis is Nkx2.1 independent, while distal lung morphogenesis appears to be strictly dependent on the wild-type activity of Nkx2.1.