Cultured mesangial cells are widely used to explore their role in kidney glomerular functions, but methods to reliably identify these cells in vivo and in vitro are lacking. Furthermore, the proposed relationship of mesangial cells to e.g. fibroblasts and smooth muscle cells has not been systematically studied. Here we wanted to search for markers of practical use also in identifying cultured mesangial cells, and to apply these markers in a study of the origin of glomerular mesangium. No epitopes specific for only mesangial cells could be identified, and no evidence of their true relationship with neural or lymphocytic lineages could be found. Findings with the variety of markers used suggest that mesangial cells may be indistinguishable from smooth muscle cells and fibroblasts. A panel of antibodies, including those against Thy1.1, smooth muscle actin, desmin, cellular fibronectin and beta 1 integrin alpha 1 and alpha 5 chains, and Wistaria floribunda (WFA) and Ricinus communis (RCA I) lectins, were found useful for mesangial cell detection in vivo and in vitro. The origin of glomerular mesangial cells could not be conclusively determined, although the results indirectly suggest that mesangial cells together with endothelial cells migrate to the glomerulus from the outside.