Perlecan is a modular heparan sulfate proteoglycan that is an intrinsic constituent of all basement membranes and extracellular matrices. Because of its strategic position and unique structure, perlecan has been implicated in modulating the activity of various growth factors required for normal development and tissue homeostasis. To gain insights into the potential function of perlecan in vivo, we examined the spatiotemporal distribution of its mRNA and protein core during murine embryogenesis. We utilized a new affinity-purified antibody that recognizes specifically the protein core of perlecan together with an in situ RT-PCR approach to perform a systematic analysis of perlecan expression and deposition during murine ontogeny. Perlecan appeared early (E10.5) in tissues of vasculogenesis including heart, pericardium, and major blood vessels. Its early expression coincided with the development of the cardiovascular system. Subsequently (E11–13), the greatest deposition of perlecan occurred within the developing cartilage, especially the cartilage undergoing endochondral ossification, where it remained elevated throughout all the developmental stages, and up to adulthood. Interestingly, the mRNA levels of perlecan were always higher in all the vascularized tissues, principally within endothelial cells, while chondrocytes displayed relatively low mRNA levels. This suggests a higher biosynthesis and turnover rates in the blood vessels vis-à-vis those of cartilaginous and other mesenchymal tissues. During later stages of development (E13–17.5) perlecan mRNA levels progressively increased and its expression correlated with the onset of tissue differentiation of various parenchymal organs including the developing kidneys, lungs, liver, spleen, and gastrointestinal tract. The central nervous system showed no perlecan expression with the exception of the calvaria and choroid plexus. Collectively, the results indicate that perlecan may play crucial roles not only in vasculogenesis but also in the maturation and maintenance of differentiated tissues, including cartilage. Dev. Dyn. 1997;210:130–145. © 1997 Wiley-Liss, Inc.