E-cadherin is a cell-cell adhesion protein expressed in cytotrophoblasts, which is lost as they differentiate and syncytialise. We have exploited E-cadherin as a marker of cytotrophoblasts to investigate villous tissue composition in first and third trimester placentae, both in normal pregnancy and pregnancies complicated by pre-eclampsia. We have achieved this by measuring expression levels of E-cadherin at the mRNA level, using Q-PCR, and at the protein level using semi-quantitative Western blotting. We have also combined E-cadherin immunohistochemistry with morphometric analysis of area measurements to define cytotrophoblast and syncytiotrophoblast compartments. This novel use of E-cadherin has revealed a decrease in the proportion of cytotrophoblasts in villous tissue as pregnancy progresses, in the absence of changes in syncytiotrophoblast cover. Moreover, in pre-eclampsia, placental E-cadherin was raised compared to syncytiotrophoblast, suggesting either exaggerated cytotrophoblast proliferation or impaired cytotrophoblast differentiation, both alterations of potential pathogenic importance.