A novel endosperm-specific gene named Esr (embryo surrounding region) has been isolated by differential display between early developmental stages of maize endosperms and embryos. It is expressed in a restricted region of the endosperm, surrounding the entire embryo at early stages (4 to 7 days after pollination, DAP) and ever-decreasing parts of the suspensor at subsequent stages. The expression starts at 4 DAP and is maintained until at least 28 DAP. A minimum of three Esr genes are present in the maize genome and at least two of them map to the short arm of chromosome 1 at position 56. The Esr genes contain no introns and show no significant nucleotide or amino acid sequence homologies to sequences in the databases. The open reading frames encode basic proteins of 14 kDa with presumptive signal peptides at their N-termini followed by a hypervariable and a conserved region. The gene product may play a role in the nutrition of the developing embryo or in the establishment of a physical barrier between embryo and endosperm.