We have previously studied the expression of alkaline phosphatase (ALP) and alpha2(I) collagen (two phenotypic markers of osteoblastic cell differentiation) during development of the rat mandible, and the spatial and temporal distribution of the respective transcripts. Our current studies utilize the rat mandible and hind foot as in vivo model systems to investigate the relationship between osteoblastic differentiation and proliferation during intramembranous and endochondral bone formation. Pregnant rats, at 15.17, and 19 days of gestation were intraperitoneally injected with various doses of [3H]-thymidine, and sacrificed at various time intervals in order to label dividing embryonic osteoblastic and preosteoblastic cells. Cross sections through the mid-body of 15-day embryos showed [3H-thymidine dose-dependent labeling of a relatively high percentage of cells in the liver (49 +/- 8% at 440 muCi) and a lower percentage of cells of the developing vertebral cartilage (29 +/- 6% at 440 muCi). ALP-positive condensed mesenchyme--consisting of mandibular preosteoblast (15 days of gestation) showed a relatively high (32 +/- 5%) level of [3H]-thymidine labeling, compared to surrounding ALP-negative loose mesenchymal cells (22 +/- 1%). Similar results were observed in the developing hind foot of 19-day embryos for ALP-positive cells (15 +/- 6%) and surrounding ALP-negative cells (13 +/- 5%). In both the hind foot and the mandible an overall decrease in labeling was observed during bone development. RNA samples from these tissues show increasing amounts of ALP mRNA, and decreasing amounts of histone H4 mRNA between days 15 and 19 of gestation. These data indicate that a general inverse correlation between osteoblastic differentiation and proliferation, similar to the correlation previously described in cultured osteogenic cells, is also present in developing bones in vivo. However, these results indicate that ALP-positive preosteoblasts, committed to the osteoblastic lineage, maintain their proliferative capacity. In an attempt to elucidate underlying molecular mechanisms, we further investigated the levels of expression of m-twist in these tissues. This member of the basic helix-loop-helix family of transcription regulators has been previously implied as playing a role in osteoblast differentiation in culture. Our results demonstrate a decrease in m-twist levels during bone development in both the mandible and the hind foot.