Temporal and spatial occurrence of hepatocyte growth factor (HGF) and its cognate receptor c-Met in the mouse mandibular development was investigated by immunohistochemistry and quantitative reverse transcriptase-polymerase chain reaction. HGF was first recognized in the mesenchymal cells of the first branchial arch at the 10th day of gestation (E10), before tongue formation, whereas HGF receptor (c-Met) -positive myogenic cells first appeared at E11 in the center of mandibles. By E12, HGF turned to be colocalized with c-Met in the differentiating tongue myoblasts. Between E14 and E16, HGF disappeared, whereas c-Met remained, in the tongue myoblasts. The levels of HGF mRNA in the developing tongue decreased in accordance with the increase of desmin mRNA levels from E11 to E17. These in vivo results strongly suggest that the HGF/c-Met system takes part in the earlier stages of tongue development. To elucidate this hypothesis, the antisense oligodeoxyribonucleotide (A-ODN) for mouse HGF mRNA was added to the organ culture system of mandible with serumless, defined medium. Mandibular arches from E10 mouse embryos were cultured at 37°C for 10 days in the absence or presence of A-ODN, control (sense) oligonucleotide (C-ODN), or A-ODN plus recombinant HGF. In the control mandibular explants cultured without HGF or ODN, the anterior two-third of the tongue derived from the first branchial arch was formed. It contained abundant desmin-positive myoblasts and was equivalent to the tongue of E14–E15. In contrast, in the presence of A-ODN in the medium, neither the swelling nor myogenic cells were found in the tongue-forming region of explants, and myogenic cells accumulated behind the tongue-forming region. Such dysplasia of tongue was never induced in the presence of C-ODN or A-ODN plus recombinant HGF in the medium. The effect of A-ODN appeared to be developmental stage-specific, because tongue dysplasia occurred when A-ODN was present during the earlier 4 days but not during the later 4 days of the culture. Furthermore, recombinant HGF added to the culture without ODNs during the earlier 4 days caused elevation in the number of mitotic myoblasts. These results suggest that HGF regulates both the migration and proliferation of myogenic cells during the earlier stages of tongue development. © 2002 Wiley-Liss, Inc.