The c-ros, c-met and c-neu genes encode receptor-type tyrosine kinases and were originally identified because of their oncogenic potential. However, recent progress in the analysis of these receptors and their respective ligands indicate that they do not mediate exclusively mitogenic signals. Rather, they can induce cell movement, differentiation or morphogenesis of epithelial cells in culture. Interestingly, the discussed receptors are expressed in embryonal epithelia, whereas direct and indirect evidence shows that the corresponding ligands are produced in mesenchymal cells. In development, signals given by mesenchymal cells are major driving forces for differentiation and morphogenesis of epithelia; embryonal epithelia are generally unable to differentiate without the appropriate mesenchymal factors. The observed activities of these receptor/ligand systems in cultured cells and their expression patterns indicate that they regulate epithelial differentiation and morphogenesis also during embryogenesis and suggest thus a molecular basis for mesenchymal epithelial interactions.