BACKGROUND: In this study we used in situ hybridization to investigate the expression of the genes 70 kilodalton (kd) collagenase and the alpha 1(IV) collagen chain of type IV collagen in cells of early human placenta and gestational endometrium. EXPERIMENTAL DESIGN: The aim was to study the spatial distribution of these gene expressions within a developing tissue which possesses physiologic invasive potential. The results obtained for the 70 kd type IV collagenase mRNA expression were also compared with the immunohistochemical distribution of the corresponding antigen. RESULTS: Expression of mRNAs for these proteins was found in cells of trophoblastic columns, stromal cells of villi and in cells of decidua and endometrial stroma. The only differences between the expressions was the lower level of signals for 70 kd type IV collagenase in fibroblastic stromal cells and endothelial cells of villi and in the pericytic cells of spiral arteries. Otherwise the results for both types of mRNA were comparable. We also studied the immunohistochemical distribution of the 70 kd type IV collagenase using specific monoclonal antibodies against the enzyme. Immunohistochemistry supported well the findings obtained by in situ hybridization. CONCLUSIONS: The results indicate that the genes for the 70 kd type IV collagenase and for the alpha 1(IV) collagen chain are simultaneously active in cells of placenta and gestational endometrium and the same cells which produce type IV collagen also can produce the cleaving enzyme, the 70 kd type IV collagenase. The results also show that the cytotrophoblastic cells, which during early pregnancy invade the extracellular matrix and spiral arteries of uterine wall contain significant amount of mRNA for the 70 kd type IV collagenase. This finding supports the concept that the 70 kd type IV collagenase would be important for invasion, and in the case of this study, also for the physiologic invasion of placental cytotrophoblasts.