Relaxin, which is secreted by the corpora lutea throughout the second half of rat pregnancy, promotes the growth and softening of the cervix. The mechanisms at both the cellular and molecular levels by which relaxin brings about these effects remain to be determined. The present study examined the influence of endogenous relaxin on the histological changes associated with cervical softening. A monoclonal antibody for rat relaxin, designated MCA1, was injected iv daily on days 12-22 of gestation. Cervices were removed on day 22, fixed in 10% buffered formalin, embedded in paraffin, and processed for histological staining. Tissue sections (5 microns thick) were stained with Gomori's trichrome stain (collagen), Orcein stain (elastin), or periodic acid-Schiff (polysaccharide). Qualitative and quantitative analyses identified several histological parameters in MCA1-treated rats that differed markedly from those in control rats. Cervices obtained from MCA1-treated rats contained collagen fiber bundles with greater compactness; elastin fibers with greater density, length and interdigitation; arteries with smaller cross-sectional areas; and luminal involutions with smaller areas than controls. The cervices of MCA1-treated rats appeared to contain fewer vacuolated epithelial cells, which secrete polysaccharide-rich material, than did cervices obtained from controls. It seems plausible that most, if not all, of these relaxin-induced modifications of the histological characteristics of the cervix facilitate birth.