Early experiments with cells in culture and recent targeting experiments have confirmed that the mesenchyme-derived growth factor hepatocyte growth factor/scatter factor (HGF/SF) is a paracrine agent that regulates the development of several epithelial and myogenic precursor cells during organogenesis. Here, we report the expression pattern of HGF/SF and its receptor, the product of the proto-oncogene c-met, during gastrulation and early organogenesis in mouse embryo. During gastrulation, the expression of HGF/SF and c-met overlaps. Initially the two genes are expressed in the endoderm and in the mesoderm along the rostro-intermediate part of the primitive streak and, later, in the node and in the notochord. Neither HGF/SF nor c-met is expressed in the ectodermal layer throughout gastrulation. During early organogenesis, overlapping expression of HGF/SF and c-met is found in heart, condensing somites and neural crest cells. However, a second and distinct pattern of expression, characterized by the presence of the ligand in mesenchymal tissues and the receptor in the surrounding ectoderm, is seen in the bronchial arches and in the limb buds. At 13 days postcoitum (d.p.c.), only this second pattern of expression is observed in differentiated somites and several major organs (i.e., lungs, liver, and gut). The expression of the HGF/SF and c-met genes throughout embryogenesis suggests a shift from an autocrine to a paracrine signaling system. The shift takes place in early organogenesis and implies different roles of HGF/SF in development. During gastrulation, HGF/SF may affect the fate of migrating mesodermal cells and may play a role in axis determination, whereas during organogenesis, the expression patterns of HGF/SF and its receptor reflect the recently established roles in the growth of certain epithelia and the migration of specific myogenic precursor cells.