The Ca(++)-dependent cell adhesion molecule E-cadherin is expressed throughout mouse development and in adult tissues. Classical gene targeting has demonstrated that E-cadherin-deficient embryos die at the blastocyst stage. To study the involvement of E-cadherin in organogenesis, a conditional gene inactivation scheme was undertaken using the bacteriophage P1 recombinase Cre/loxP system. Mice with homozygous loxP sites in both alleles of the E-cadherin (Cdh1) gene were generated and these mice were crossed with transgenic mice with the Cre recombinase under the control of the hormone-inducible MMTV promoter. This resulted in deletion of the E-cadherin gene in the differentiating alveolar epithelial cells of the mammary gland. The mutant mammary gland developed normally up to 16-18 days of pregnancy but exhibited a dramatic phenotype around parturition. The production of milk proteins was so drastically reduced that adult mutant mothers could not suckle their offspring. Thus, the lack of E-cadherin affected the terminal differentiation program of the lactating mammary gland. In concordance with this finding, the prolactin-dependent activation of the transcription factor Stat5a was initiated but not maintained in the mutant gland. Instead, without E-cadherin massive cell death was observed at parturition and the mutant mammary gland at this stage resembled that of the involuted gland normally seen after weaning. These results demonstrate an essential role for E-cadherin in the function of differentiated alveolar epithelial cells. No tumors were detected in mutant glands lacking E-cadherin.