The expression of mRNA encoding the long and short forms of the prolactin receptor (PRLR) in the fetal rat was examined using the method of reverse transcription-PCR. A 742 bp PCR product encoding the extracellular and transmembrane domains of the PRLR was detected in maternal and fetal liver and in fetal adrenal, kidney, small intestine, pancreas, brain, pituitary, thymus, lung and skin but not in fetal heart. Highest levels of the 742 bp PRLR transcript were detected in fetal adrenal (45·2% of levels in maternal liver), kidney (27·2%), small intestine (21·7%), pancreas (18·3%) and liver (10·8%), and tissue levels of the 742 bp product correlated positively (r=0·92, P<0·01) with the specific binding of the fetal lactogenic hormone rat placental lactogen II (rPL-II). These findings suggest that the PRLR may serve as a physiological binding protein for rPL-II in the rat fetus. There were striking differences in the relative expression of mRNA encoding the long and short forms of the PRLR. The long form of the receptor was expressed in maternal liver and placenta and in all fetal tissues studied except fetal heart. The short form of the receptor was also detected in maternal liver and placenta and fetal adrenal, kidney, small intestine, liver and thymus; in contrast, there was limited expression of the short-form of the receptor in fetal pancreas, pituitary and brain and no short form transcripts were detected in fetal lung, skin or heart. The results of these studies indicate widespread expression of the rat PRLR in fetal and uteroplacental tissues, implicating diverse roles for the placental prolactin-like proteins in fetal development.