Seed oils of most Cuphea species contain > 90% medium chain (C8-C14) fatty acids. Thioesterases with specificity for these substrates are important determinants of the medium chain phenotype. The role of condensing enzymes, however, has not been investigated. cDNA clones encoding beta-ketoacyl-acyl carrier protein (ACP) synthase (KAS) were isolated from C. wrightii, a C10/C12-producing species. Deduced amino acid sequences of four unique clones were approximately 60% identical to plant KAS I sequences and approximately 75% identical to a distinct class of KAS sequences recently identified in castor and barley. A 46 kDa protein that was observed only in developing and mature seed was detected using antiserum directed against recombinant Cuphea KAS protein. The 46 kDa protein was abundant in developing seeds of six medium chain-producing Cuphea species but barely detected in one long chain-producing species. A 48 kDa protein identified immunologically as KAS I was expressed in both medium and long chain-producing Cuphea species and was detected in all tissues tested. In in vitro assays, extracts from C. wrightii and C. viscosissima developing embryos were unable to extend fatty acid chains beyond C10 following treatment with 10 microns cerulenin, a potent inhibitor of KAS I. However, a C. viscosissima mutant, cpr-1, whose seed oils are deficient in caprate relative to wild type, was impaired in extension of C8 to C10 in this assay and Western analysis revealed a specific deficiency in 46 kDa KAS in cpr-1 embryos. These results implicate cerulenin-resistant condensing activity in production of medium chain fatty acids in Cuphea.