A model of gastric ulceration in the rat has been used to determine the expression of four messenger RNAs (mRNAs) encoding peptides considered to play active parts in the healing response. The trefoil peptides, rat spasmolytic polypeptide (rSP) and rat intestinal trefoil factor (rITF), along with epidermal growth factor (EGF) and transforming growth factor alpha (TGF alpha) were the molecules studied. Ulceration was caused under anaesthesia by brief application of a liquid nitrogen-filled cryoprobe to the gastric serosal surface and RNA expression was monitored over the next 10 days. Each mRNA was quantified by ribonuclease protection assay, and mRNAs encoding rSP and rITF were localized within tissue sections by hybridization in situ with 35S antisense riboprobes. Ulceration induced the very rapid expression of first rSP and then rITF mRNA, whereas the mRNAs encoding EGF and TGF alpha increased at later times, with maxima recorded at 3 and 6 days, respectively. Hybridization in situ detected extensive rSP mRNA expression in the regenerative epithelia. The pronounced, but temporally different patterns of mRNA induction after ulceration suggest that the trefoil peptides may fulfil different and more immediate roles than the more 'traditional' healing proteins EGF and TGF alpha.