Osteogenic protein-1 (OP-1) is a member of the bone morphogenetic protein subfamily of the transforming growth factor-beta (TGF-beta) superfamily. Since members of the TGF-beta superfamily have a role in tissue development the distribution of OP-1 in developing human embryos (gestational age 5-14 weeks) was examined by immunohistochemical methods. Positive staining for OP-1 was observed in: sclerotome, hypertrophied chondrocytes, osteoblasts, periosteum, epithelial cells of the adrenal "provisional cortex" and the convoluted tubules of developing kidneys. In the developing lungs, pancreas and skin, OP-1 was localized in basement membranes underlying the epithelium. In vitro binding studies of 125I-OP-1 to various extracellular matrix components revealed high affinity of OP-1 for type IV collagen and less for heparin, collagen types I and VI. Present findings suggest that, in addition to bone formation, OP-1 could have other important regulatory roles in human embryogenesis with high binding affinity to a basement membrane component.