Induction of the embryonic kidney mesenchyme is followed by formation of cell aggregates which subsequently transform into epithelial tubules. Syndecan, which binds various matrix components and growth factors, is a candidate molecule to be involved in this process. We have analyzed the changes in the expression of syndecan during tubule morphogenesis by using in situ hybridization and slot-blot analysis. The expression pattern of syndecan was compared with the distribution of cell proliferation analyzed by immunohistochemistry. Furthermore, the expression of syndecan during formation of the pretubular aggregates was studied in hanging-drop cultures of experimentally induced mesenchymal cells. Syndecan mRNA was expressed in the metanephric mesenchyme prior to induction, was intensely present during formation of the pretubular cell aggregates, but was lost during maturation of the nephron. Slot-blot analyses of the kidney mesenchymes (11-day kidney) cultured in a transfilter situation with a heterotypic inductor tissue that triggers a complete tubulogenic program in the nephric mesenchyme during the first 24 hr suggested the presence of syndecan mRNA in the uninduced mesenchymes with no change during induction. Expression of mRNA was stimulated later (13-day kidney) followed by subsequent decrease. Immunoisolation of sulfate-labeled syndecan, however, revealed a marked stimulation in the induced kidney mesenchyme during the first 24-hr inductive period when the DNA level still remained constant. In hanging-drop cultures where either induced or uninduced mesenchymal cells were dissociated and reaggregated, syndecan was detected only in the induced and aggregating mesenchymal cells. Double-immunostaining demonstrated a close correlation between syndecan expression and cell proliferation analyzed by bromodeoxyuridine incorporation. Thus, it appears that syndecan expression in the mesenchyme is initially induced post-transcriptionally and later during differentiation at the mRNA level. Syndecan may have a dual function during early kidney morphogenesis; it may be involved in cell aggregation through its adhesive properties, and it may contribute to proliferation of the induced mesenchymal cells by binding growth factors.