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The rab subfamily of small GTPases has been demonstrated to play an important role in the regulation of membrane traffic in eukaryotic cells. Compared with nonpolarized cells, epithelial cells have distinct apical and basolateral transport pathways which need to be separately regulated. This raises the question whether epithelial cells require specific rab proteins. However, all rab proteins identified so far were found to be equally expressed in polarized and nonpolarized cells. Here we report the identification of rab17, the first epithelial cell- specific small GTPase. Northern blot analysis on various mouse organs, revealed that the rab17 mRNA is present in kidney, liver, and intestine but not in organs lacking epithelial cells nor in fibroblasts. To determine whether rab17 is specific for epithelial cells we studied its expression in the developing kidney. We found that rab17 is absent from the mesenchymal precursors but is induced upon their differentiation into epithelial cells. In situ hybridization studies on the embryonic kidney and intestine revealed that rab17 is restricted to epithelial cells. By immunofluorescence and immunoelectron microscopy on kidney sections, rab17 was localized to the basolateral plasma membrane and to apical tubules. Rab proteins associated with two distinct compartments have been found to regulate transport between them. Therefore, our data suggest that rab17 might be involved in transcellular transport.