BACKGROUND: Diabetic pregnancy is associated with increased risk of malformation in the infant. Diabetes-induced anomalies of the face and heart are strongly correlated with neural crest cell (NCC) maldevelopment. We aimed to study glucose-induced alterations of mRNA levels in cranial and trunk NCCs isolated from rat embryos with increased risk of developing mandibular and cardiac malformations in diabetic pregnancy. METHODS: Inbred Sprague-Dawley rat embryos were used for NCC isolation from neural tube explants. The migrating cells were exposed to 5.5 or 30 mmol/l glucose concentration for 48 hr, harvested, and prepared for gene expression measurement by RT-PCR or immunostaining with either distal-less (Dlx) or AP-2-α antibodies. RESULTS: Evaluation of the immunostained slides showed that approximately 75% of the cells were of NCC origin. Exposure to 30 mM glucose decreased mRNA levels of Copper–Zinc superoxide dismutase, manganese superoxide dismutase, extracellular superoxide dismutase, Catalase, Gpx-1, Nrf2, poly-ADP ribose polymerase, B-cell leukemia/lymphoma protein 2, and β-Catenin genes in cranial neural crest explant cultures. In addition, Pax-3, Pax-6, Wnt3a, and Apc mRNA levels were decreased by high glucose exposure in both cranial and trunk neural crest explant cultures. CONCLUSION: Cranial NCCs diminish their mRNA levels of antioxidative enzymes and the Nrf2 response factor, as well as the antiapoptotic B-cell leukemia/lymphoma protein 2 gene, in response to increased ambient glucose concentration. Furthermore, both cranial and trunk NCC decrease the mRNA levels of the transcription factors Pax-3 and Pax-6, as well as key components of the Wnt pathway. These patterns of glucose-altered gene expression in a developmentally important cell population may be of etiological importance for NCC-associated malformations in diabetic pregnancy. Birth Defects Res (Part B) 92:487–497, 2011. © 2011 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.