In developing teeth the differentiation of odontoblasts is triggered by the enamel epithelium and is tightly coupled with morphogenesis. There is substantial evidence that even in mature teeth the cells of the dental pulp retain the capability to differentiate into odontoblasts under suitable conditions. However, cells from other than the dental mesenchymal cell lineage apparently do not possess this potential. Thus, it is conceivable that the dental mesenchymal cells acquire cell type-specific potential to differentiate into odontoblasts during their developmental history. Therefore, the understanding of the mechanisms which regulate the terminal differentiation of odontoblasts requires that the molecular changes and mechanisms that are associated with their progressive determination be clarified. It can be speculated that there are key transition points in the developmental sequence during which the mesenchymal cells acquire new levels of differentiation. These include, (1) the condensation of the neural crest-derived mesenchymal cells around the epithelial bud, (2) their entrance into the dental papilla lineage during cap stage, and (3) the differentiation of the cells underlying the enamel epithelium into odontoblasts during bell stage. The transition points are conceivably characterized by amplification or onset of expression of new sets of genes encoding transcription factors, growth factors as well as structural proteins. We have applied in situ hybridization for localization of the expression of two growth factors during mouse molar morphogenesis: transforming growth factor beta 1 (TGF beta 1) and int-2 (a proto-oncogene coding for a fibroblast growth factor-related protein). During bud stage, expression of TGF beta 1 was first detected in the epithelium and shortly thereafter in the condensed dental mesenchyme. The expression was weak during early bell stage but a high number of transcripts appeared in secretory odontoblasts as well as in presecretory ameloblasts. int-2 mRNA appeared in the dental papilla mesenchyme at the onset of cap stage, persisted in the cuspal mesenchyme during bell stage and was lost upon completion of morphogenesis. Our findings suggest that cell type-specific expression of TGF beta 1 and int-2 is associated with phenotypic properties of the odontoblastic cell lineage. For instance, TGF beta 1 may regulate matrix deposition by increasing tenascin and syndecan expression in the condensed dental mesenchyme and by controlling dentin matrix deposition by odontoblasts. TGF beta 1 and int-2 may also be involved in signalling between the epithelial and mesenchymal tissues and in regulation of gene expression at the transition points of the developmental sequence that leads to the differentiation of odontoblasts.