We describe here the expression of c-kit and Steel (Sl) genes during the development of melanocytes in normally pigmented strains of chick and quail compared to unpigmented (White Leghorn) and hyperpigmented (Silky Fowl) strains of chickens. By using the quail/chick chimera system, we found that the neural crest cells, which migrate dorso-laterally in the subectodermal mesenchyme to give rise to the melanocytes, express c-kit as early as E4, that is about 2 days after they have left the neural primordium. The Sl gene is expressed from E4 onward in the epidermis but not at all in the dermis at any developmental stage. As feather buds develop, Sl mRNA becomes restricted to the apical region of the feather filaments. During formation of the barbs and barbules of the down feather, production of the Steel factor is restricted to the external epidermal cells of the barbules. The cell bodies of the c-kit-positive melanocytes are then located in the internal border of the epidermal ridges and extend their processes toward the source of the Steel factor. We propose that the spatial restriction of Sl gene activity at that stage accounts for the morphology of the melanocytes and their vectorial secretion of melanin to the external barbule cells. As a whole, these results show that during skin development c-kit positive cells are present in the Steel factor-producing areas at the time when melanoblasts proliferate and differentiate. Interestingly, in the mouse, previous studies showed that the Sl gene is activated in the dermis where melanoblasts undergo most of their expansion (Nishikawa et al.  EMBO J. 10:2111-2118). In the unpigmented and hyperpigmented mutants that we studied, expression of the Sl message, as judged quantitatively in Northern blots (for the SF embryos) or spatially by in situ hybridization, is similar to that observed in normal birds. In SF embryos the c-kit expressing melanoblasts migrate initially in the dorso-lateral migration pathway as in normal birds. However their number increases considerably in the dermis from E5 onward. From E7, they invade mesodermally derived organs that do not express the Sl gene. This suggests that another, still unknown, factor(s) is responsible for the survival, the proliferation, and the extensive spreading of melanocytic cells within the mesoderm of this mutant.