Few markers specific for mouse endothelium exist. We describe here one such marker, MECA-32, a monoclonal antibody which shows high specificity for mouse endothelium in both embryonic and mature tissues. The MECA-32 antigen has a M(r) of 50-55 x 10(3) under reducing conditions and M(r) of 100-120 x 10(3) under nonreducing conditions. It is expressed on most endothelial cells in the embryonic and in the adult mouse, with the exception of the brain, skeletal, and cardiac muscle, where it has a more restricted distribution. In skeletal and cardiac muscle only small arterioles and venules express the MECA-32 antigen, while in the brain its expression is negatively correlated with the differentiation of the vasculature to form the blood brain barrier. Interestingly, during embryonic development the antigen occurs on the brain vasculature up to day 16 of gestation (E16), whereupon it disappears. The embryonic brain is an avascular organ anlage which is vascularized by ingrowth of external blood vessels. Differentiation of the vasculature to form the blood brain barrier occurs at approximately E16 in the mouse. This differentiation correlates with the downregulation of MECA-32 antigen expression. Between E12 and E16 MECA-32 detects most endothelial cell surfaces of the blood vessels in the brain. No MECA-32 antigen is found in the brain at E17 or any later stage of development with the exception of the vasculature of the circumventricular organs. The results suggest that MECA-32 antigen expression is temporally and spatially correlated with the development of the blood brain barrier.