Acid secretion first appears in the stomach during the later stages of fetal development. Gastric acid secretion is regulated by the stimulatory effects of gastrin, histamine, acetylcholine and the inhibitory actions of somatostatin on their respective receptors. A semi-quantitative reverse transcriptase-polymerase chain reaction method for the determination of changes in mRNA expression for these receptors was developed and correlated with known changes in gastric acidity. Glyceraldehyde-3-phosphate dehydrogenase (GAP-DH) was used as a reference and an internal standard. The antrum and fundus from four age groups were assayed: 80 days of gestation, 110 days of gestation, term (145 days) and adult animals. The CCK B/gastrin and the histamine (H(2)) receptor mRNA were significantly lower in samples from the fundus of fetuses, from 80 and 110 days of gestation when compared with the adult fundus. Histamine receptor mRNA in the antrum was also significantly lower in the 80 and 110 days of gestation samples relative to the term fetal antrum. Somatostatin II receptor mRNA levels in the antrum decreased with increasing age with no change in the fundus. These findings suggest that changes in receptor gene expression, may be responsible for the diminished gastric acidity and responsiveness observed in the fetal stomach.