The purpose of this study was to determine whether nidogen, the linkage protein of the basal lamina, is of epidermal or dermal origin. The development of the basal lamina was studied in an in vitro skin model. Preputial fibroblasts seeded onto a nylon mesh attached, proliferated, and developed a rich extracellular matrix (dermal model). Preputial keratinocytes were added to the dermal model to form a keratinocyte dermal model that ultrastructurally resembled in many respects human skin. Ultrastructural analysis revealed early stages of dermal development, including an incomplete basal lamina, aggregates of dermal filamentous material connecting to the lamina densa, bundles of 10-nm microfibrils, formation of premature hemidesmosomes, anchoring filaments, and anchoring fibrils. The cell origin of nidogen was determined in the dermal model and in the epidermal and dermal components of the keratinocyte dermal model. Specific antibodies and a cDNA probe for nidogen were used for immunofluorescence microscopy, Western and Northern blots, and for in situ hybridization studies. Our data show that fibroblasts are the only source of nidogen during early basal lamina formation. Although fibroblasts can synthesize nidogen and deposit it in the dermal matrix, no basal lamina will form unless they are recombined with keratinocytes. This suggests that the epidermis plays a major regulatory role in the production and assembly of nidogen into the basal lamina.