Living hair-forming cells (trichocytes) were obtained from basal portions of human, bovine and ovine hair-follicles, free from contaminations of root-sheath epithelia. Their intermediate filament (IF) cytoskeleton was studied by gel electrophoresis of the native, i.e. non-S-carboxymethylated polypeptides, by peptide-map analysis of the individual components, by reconstitution experiments and by immunological methods. The IF protein complement of trichocytes from all three species is characterized by a very similar set of eight highly conserved alpha-keratin polypeptides, comprising four members of the basic (type II; Mr 56,500-60,000) and four members of the acidic (type I; Mr 41,000-44,000) cytokeratin subfamily. None of these eight trichocyte alpha-keratin polypeptides, which form heterotypic complexes and IF in vivo and in vitro, is identical to any of the epithelial cytokeratins of the same species. All the trichocyte-specific cytokeratins are native polypeptides encoded by different mRNAs, as demonstrated by in vitro translation of hair follicle mRNA. The same polypeptides are also found in mature hairs, although with different patterns of modification. Our study provides the first analysis of the native unmodified alpha-keratin polypeptides of trichocytes and hairs and therefore allows a direct comparison of these with the epithelial cytokeratins and other IF proteins from the same species. These findings indicate that, during fetal hair-follicle formation, the differentiation of trichocytes from epithelial cells involves a complete cessation of the synthesis of epithelial cytokeratins and a marked induction of the synthesis of a complex set of trichocyte-specific cytokeratins.