To elucidate the roles of fibroblast growth factors (FGF) in tooth development, we have analyzed the expression patterns of fibroblast growth factor receptors (FGFR) in mouse teeth by in situ hybridization and studied the effects of FGF-2, -4, -8, and -9 on cell proliferation in vitro by local application with beads on isolated dental mesenchymes. mRNAs of FGFR-1, -2, and -3 were localized by probes specific for the alternative splice variants IIIb and IIIc. The expression patterns of FGFR1 -2, and -3 were completely different, and the two splicing variants of FGFR1 and 2 exhibited different expression domains. FGFR4 was not expressed in the developing teeth. The IIIb splice forms of FGFR1 and -2 were expressed in the dental epithelium during morphogenesis. The IIIc splice form of FGFR1 was expressed both in epithelium and mesenchyme whereas FGFR2 IIIc was confined to the mesenchymal cells of the dental follicle. Both splice forms of FGFR3 were expressed in dental papilla mesenchyme. None of the FGF-receptors was detected in the primary enamel knot, the putative signaling center regulating tooth morphogenesis. This may explain the fact that enamel knot cells do not proliferate, although they express intensely mitogenic FGFs. Beads releasing FGF-2, -4, -8, or -9 proteins stimulated cell proliferation in cultured dental mesenchymes. These data, together with our earlier data on FGF expression [Kettunen and Thesleff (1998): Dev Dyn 211:256-268] suggest that FGF-8 and -9 mediate epithelial-mesenchymal interactions during tooth initiation. During advancing morphogenesis FGF-3, -4, and -9 may act both on mesenchyme and epithelium. Finally, the intense expression of FGFR1 in odontoblasts and ameloblasts and FGFR2 IIIb in ameloblasts suggests that FGFs participate in regulation of their differentiation and/or secretory functions.