The expression of a battery of trophoblast-specific mRNAs was studied during trophectoderm development in vivo and in vitro to assess the use of these mRNAs as markers of trophoblast differentiation and to examine lineage relationships between various trophectoderm derivatives. In situ hybridization of sectioned day 6.5-18.5 mouse embryos localized mRNAs for mouse placental lactogens I and II and mouse proliferin (PLF) to trophoblast giant cells and proliferin-related protein mRNA to the spongiotrophoblast and giant cell layers. A fifth marker, cDNA 4311, was found only in spongiotrophoblast. Day 3.5 blastocyst outgrowths and day 7.5 diploid extraembryonic ectoderm (EX) and ectoplacental cone (EPC) were then cultured to produce polyploid giant cells in vitro. Cultures were processed for in situ hybridization after 2, 4, or 6 days. EX and EPC both formed secondary giant cells, which expressed all markers in the same sequence as was observed in vivo, and primary giant cells in blastocyst outgrowths expressed the early giant cell markers PLF and PL-I on days 4 and 6 of culture. EPC progressed through the sequence 2 days ahead of EX, indicating commitment of EPC to giant cell formation. These results suggest that EX, EPC, and primary and secondary giant cells all share in a common pathway of differentiation and that the highly ordered sequence of gene expression characteristic of this pathway occurs similarly in vivo and in vitro.