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A monoclonal antibody (anti-alpha sm-1) recognizing exclusively alpha- smooth muscle actin was selected and characterized after immunization of BALB/c mice with the NH2-terminal synthetic decapeptide of alpha- smooth muscle actin coupled to keyhole limpet hemocyanin. Anti-alpha sm- 1 helped in distinguishing smooth muscle cells from fibroblasts in mixed cultures such as rat dermal fibroblasts and chicken embryo fibroblasts. In the aortic media, it recognized a hitherto unknown population of cells negative for alpha-smooth muscle actin and for desmin. In 5-d-old rats, this population is about half of the medial cells and becomes only 8 +/- 5% in 6-wk-old animals. In cultures of rat aortic media SMCs, there is a progressive increase of this cell population together with a progressive decrease in the number of alpha- smooth muscle actin-containing stress fibers per cell. Double immunofluorescent studies carried out with anti-alpha sm-1 and anti- desmin antibodies in several organs revealed a heterogeneity of stromal cells. Desmin-negative, alpha-smooth muscle actin-positive cells were found in the rat intestinal muscularis mucosae and in the dermis around hair follicles. Moreover, desmin-positive, alpha-smooth muscle actin- negative cells were identified in the intestinal submucosa, rat testis interstitium, and uterine stroma. alpha-Smooth muscle actin was also found in myoepithelial cells of mammary and salivary glands, which are known to express cytokeratins. Finally, alpha-smooth muscle actin is present in stromal cells of mammary carcinomas, previously considered fibroblastic in nature. Thus, anti-alpha sm-1 antibody appears to be a powerful probe in the study of smooth muscle differentiation in normal and pathological conditions.