Cadherin-11 (cad-11) belongs to the cell adhesion type II cadherin family, which seems to have different functions from the classic cadherin family. This study shows the overall pattern of cad-11 gene expression during rat embryonic development, from the pregastrula to very late embryonic stage. Cad-11 is the first cadherin found to be highly expressed in the dispersed and migrating mesenchymal cells that originate from the neuroectodermal neural crest cells and from the pre-chordal and paraxial mesoderm. A burst of cad-11 expression appears during the epithelial to mesenchymal transition, as observed by sclerotome formation. Cad-11 mRNAs were present in all mesenchymal cells throughout the embryo, regardless of their embryonic origin. A proximo-distal and antero-posterior gradient of cad-11 expression is seen in the limb buds, genitalia, and tail. As development proceeds, while all epithelium are negative, cad-11 is present in all mesenchymal cells involved in various morphogenetic events, such as the mesenchyme condensations during chondrogenesis and in the formation of sclera, cornea, naris, palate and meninges. Cad-11 was strongly expressed in mesenchyme during lung or kidney branching morphogenesis or the many epithelium to mesenchyme inductions that operate in the nasal septum, skin, vibrissae, teeth and various glands. High levels of cad-11 transcripts were also found in the dispersed cells of the hyaloid plexus in the vitreous body and in the invading mesenchyme within the trabeculae of the outflow tract of the heart. Cad-11 is thus specific to the mesenchymal phenotype whatever the stage of embryonic development.