Two highly purified rat casein mRNA fractions were used as templates to synthesize complementary DNA (cDNA) hybridization probes using RNA-directed DNA polymerase isolated from avian myeloblastosis virus. Both of the probes selectively hybridized to RNA isolated from lactating mammary tissue, but not to poly(adenylic acid)-containing rat liver RNA. An analysis of the kinetics of hybridization of the cDNA derived from the 15S casein mRNA (cDNA12S) with their individual mRNA templates indicated that greater than 90% hybridization occurred over a R0t range of one and one-half logs with R0t 1/2 values of 0.0023 and 0.0032 mol s l.-1, respectively. Compared with the total RNA isolated from lactating mammary tissue, these values represented a 166- and 245-fold purification, respectively, of these individual mRNA fractions. Using the 15S casein mRNA as a template, two probes of different lengths and specific activities were synthesized. The deoxyribonucleotide and mRNA concentrations and the temperature of incubation were optimized to obtain either a high specific activity cDNA probe, 330 nucleotides long, which represented approximately 25% of the mRNA or a lower specific activity preparation containing some complete cDNA copies, 1300 nucleotides in length. The Tm of the longer cDNA15S-15S mRNA hybrid was 88.5 degrees C, while that of the short cDNA15S-RNA hybrid was 82.5 degrees C. Following this initial characterization, the cDNA15S probe was utilized for three separate determinations: (1) Analysis of the sequence divergence between mouse and rat casein mRNAs. It was observed that the rate of hybridization of heterologous rat cDNA15S-mouse casein mRNA was only 20% that of the homologous rat cDNA15S-rat casein mRNA hybridization. The resulting heterologous hybrid displayed approximately 17% mismatching compared with the homologous hybrid. (2) Determination of the gene dosage for casein mRNA in normal and malignant mammary cells. In this study, an analysis of the kinetics of hybridization of the high specific activity cDNA15S probe with an excess of DNA isolated from lactating mammary tissue, carcinogen-induced mammary tumors, or rat liver indicated that casein mRNA was transcribed from the nonlification or deletion was observed during tumor formation or the process of mammary differentiation. (3) Quantitation of casein mRNA sequences during normal mammary gland development. RNA excess hybridizations were performed using RNA extracted from either pregnant, lactating, or regressed rat mammary tissue. The concentration of casein mRNA molecules/alveolar cell was found to increase 12-fold from 5 days of pregnancy until 8 days of lactation and then declined to approximately 2% of the maximal level of 79 000 molecules/cell by 7 days after weaning. A coordinate increase was observed in casein mRNA sequences detected by cDNA hybridization and mRNA activity measured in a cell-free translation assay.