We have examined the developmental patterns of neural cell adhesion molecule (NCAM) gene expression in embryonic mouse skeletal muscle cells by in situ hybridization. Moreover, by utilising exon-specific cRNA probes, we have examined tissue specific splicing of the NCAM gene. We show that there is a distinct sequence of NCAM isoform expression during skeletal muscle development. Since NCAMs are also expressed in other cell types, particularly neurons, NCAM mRNAs have been colocalised with acetylcholine receptor alpha (AChR alpha) gene transcripts to identify muscle-specific expression. NCAM is first detected in somites as they first form, prior to their differentiation into muscle and nonmuscle compartments. Myotomes, the first skeletal muscle masses to form in the embryo, express mRNAs for the transmembrane 180 and 140 kDa isoforms of NCAM. Both of these transcripts are also detected in the neural tube, and their spatial pattern of expression changes with development. Transcripts containing the muscle-specific domain (MSD) of the NCAM gene are not detected prior to 11 days postcoitum (p.c.), at a time when rostral somites already contain well-developed myotomes. As the level of MSD mRNAs increases at 12 days p.c., the 140 and 180 kDa transcript levels decrease in skeletal muscle masses. The level of all NCAM isoform transcripts declines between 13 and 15 days p.c. in muscle. However, the 180 and 140 kDa NCAM isoforms are expressed at a high level in neural tissue and in other locations in the developing embryo such as in smooth muscle, around vibrissae follicles, and in the perichondrial zone of digits.