We have recently demonstrated the consistent detection of transforming growth factor alpha (TGF-alpha) in chemically transformed hamster oral tumors. By Northern blot analysis, no TGF-alpha mRNA can be detected in normal cheek pouch mucosa. The consistent expression of TGF-alpha associated with the malignant transformation in the well-defined hamster oral cancer model prompted us to hypothesize that the aberrant expression of this important cellular gene could be related to a specific stage of epithelial alteration. In situ hybridization was used to test this hypothesis. We now report that by in situ hybridization we can detect TGF-alpha mRNA in normal hamster oral epithelium and also at all stages of transformation. In all epithelium, labeling of TGF-alpha mRNA in the basal layer is more pronounced than that observed in the spinous and squamous layers. There is a significant increase of TGF-alpha mRNA labeling early in 7,12-dimethylbenz(a)anathracene-induced oral carcinogenesis. This increase is associated with morphological changes of epithelial hyperplasia or dysplasia. Although lesions exhibiting full-thickness epithelial dysplasia (carcinoma in situ) showed more labeling of TGF-alpha mRNA than do areas of lesser dysplasia, the transition to full-fledged papillary or invasive squamous cell carcinoma is not associated with further elevations of TGF-alpha expression.