Changes of extracellular matrix are involved in the pathogenesis of autosomal dominant polycystic kidney disease (ADPKD). The relationship between epithelial changes and extracellular matrix production was studied in a new rat model (Han:SPRD/cy+) at an early phase of cystogenesis. Messenger RNA expression of the alpha 1(IV)-chain of collagen type IV, the main structural component of basement membrane, was localized by in situ hybridization. The presence of collagen IV-protein was shown by immunohistochemistry. At an initial stage, cysts were lined with normal-appearing epithelium except for focal zones of less differentiated cells exhibiting strong collagen alpha 1(IV) mRNA expression and a thickened basement membrane. In these zones, an increase in cell number (2.39-fold) per unit epithelial area indicated hyperplastic growth. Conspicuously, these zones were found at 'bottleneck'-like transitions from normal-size tubules to cystic expansions. Intermediate stages of cysts showed more prominent extracellular matrix deposits and an overall maximally enhanced collagen IV mRNA expression, whereas terminal stages were lined with a flat, simplified epithelium and exhibited moderate collagen IV expression. We suggest that focally enhanced expression of collagen IV in the tubular epithelium and surrounding interstitium of Han:SPRD/cy+ rat kidney is initially involved in cyst development.