Cellular genes containing nucleotide sequences homologous to retroviral oncogenes (v-onc) have been identified in the genomes of a variety of species of both the vertebrate and invertebrate phyla. Expression of such genes, termed c-onc genes, has been shown to be tissue-specific in chickens and mice and to be modulated during murine development and differentiation of human haematopoietic cells. We report here that the level of the c-fos gene transcripts is 100-fold greater in human term fetal membranes than in other normal human tissues and cells. These levels of c-fos expression in human amniotic and chorionic cells are close to the level of v-fos expression that results in the induction of osteosarcomas in mice and transformation of fibroblasts in vitro. This observation suggests that the induction of neoplastic transformation by the FBJ murine osteosarcoma virus may require the expression of the fos gene product at high levels in an inappropriate cell type. In contrast, the human c-fms gene is expressed at high levels specifically in term placenta and trophoblastic cells. The tissue and cell type-specific patterns of c-fos and c-fms expression suggest that the physiological function of the c-fos and c-fms encoded proteins may be associated with those embryo-derived cells whose primary functions are protection and nourishment of the human fetus.