Development of the fetal mouse esophageal epithelium was followed using light microscopy, transmission electron microscopy (TEM), scanning electron microscopy (SEM) and radioautography. At 15 days of gestation in the cervical (C), mediastinal (M), and abdominal (A) segments of the esophagus, the epithelium was two or three cells thick, and only cells located in the basal (germinal) layer incorporated tritiated thymidine. Ciliated cells were sparse in all three segments. At 17 days of gestation, longitudinal mesenchymal ridges became more differentiated in the distal segment. Labeling indices were lower than at preceding stages in each segment. Ciliated cells had increased in number and appeared to be evenly distributed along the whole esophagus. In periodic acid-Schiff (PAS)-stained sections, an increasing proximodistal distribution of glycogen stores was observed, with greatest concentrations found in segment A. At 18 days of gestation, labeling indices were comparable in segments C and M (11.7% +/- 2.9% and 12.8% +/- 1.9%, respectively) but remained higher in segment A (17.9% +/- 2.0%). Ciliated cells were still present. At this stage, transverse circular furrows and ridges started to appear. They increased in number at 4 days after birth and were very closely distributed in the adult. In longitudinal sections, these ridges corresponded to projections of stratum granulosum and of the overlying stratum corneum. After birth, ciliated cells desquamated rapidly but some patches were still present at 4 days. At 8 days, the esophageal epithelium was not yet keratinized.