Cadherins are a family of Ca(2+)-dependent cell adhesion molecules. Through their homophilic binding interactions, cadherins play important roles in tissue formation and maintenance during development. Here the authors compare the expression patterns of the three classical cadherins, E-, N- and P-cadherin, during mouse eye development from embryonic day 9.5 (E9.5) to adult. It was found that: (1) The expression patterns of N- and P-cadherin are mutually exclusive in most ocular tissues during development. N-cadherin mRNA is detected specifically in the lens placode during lens induction at E9.5, and is absent in the rest of the surface ectodermal tissues. In contrast, P-cadherin is expressed in the surface ectoderm but not in the lens vesicle. N-cadherin is expressed continuously in the lens pit, lens vesicle, and in the epithelial cells and newly differentiating fiber cells of the mature lens. P-cadherin is expressed in the epithelial cells of the cornea, eyelids and Harderian gland. Reciprocal expression patterns of N-and P-cadherins are also seen during retinal development. N-cadherin is initially expressed in both the inner and outer layers of the optic cup at E9.5. N-cadherin expression persists in the inner layer as it develops into neural retina, but is turned off in the outer layer where the cells differentiate into retinal pigment epithelial (RPE) cells and express P-cadherin. Reciprocal patterns of expression are also seen in the ciliary epithelium. N-cadherin is expressed in the inner layer and P-cadherin in the outer layer of the ciliary epithelium. (2) E- and P-cadherins are epithelial cadherins. Their expression patterns in the eye are not identical. Both cadherins are found in the epithelia of the cornea, eyelid and Harderian gland. In contrast, lens epithelial cells express E- but not P-cadherin, and RPE cells express P- but not E-cadherin. (3) In addition to its high expression in surface ectoderm-derived tissues, E-cadherin mRNA was also detected in some of the retinal ganglion neurons at postnatal day 14 (P14). E-cadherin expression in the neural retina has not been reported before. This study shows that cell fate determination in the eye occurs in conjunction with distinct changes in the patterns of cadherin gene expression.