The BC3H1 cell line has been used widely as a model for studying regulation of muscle-related proteins, such as the acetylcholine receptor, myokinase, creatine kinase, and actin. These cells, derived from a nitrosourea-induced mouse brain neoplasm, have some of the morphological characteristics of smooth muscle and have been shown to express the vascular smooth muscle isoform of alpha-actin. To provide further information about the contractile protein phenotype of BC3H1 and to gain additional insights into the possible tissue of origin of these cells, we have examined the expression of a battery of contractile protein genes. During rapid growth, subconfluent BC3H1 cells express the nonmuscle isoform of alpha-tropomyosin (alpha-Tm) and the nonsarcomeric isoforms of myosin heavy and light chains (MHCs and MLCs, respectively), but do not express troponin T(TnT). However, when BC3H1 cells differentiate in response to incubation in serum-deprived medium or upon approaching confluence, they express TnT as well as sarcomeric muscle isoforms of MHC, MLC 2 and 3, alpha-Tm, and alpha- actin. These results suggest that BC3H1 is a skeletal muscle cell line of ectodermal origin that is defective for commitment to terminal differentiation.