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The human Wilms' tumor predisposition gene, WT1, is a Cys-His zinc finger polypeptide which appears to be a transcription factor controlling gene expression during embryonic kidney development. In order to analyze the role of the WT1 gene in nephroblast differentiation, we have isolated the murine homolog of human WT1. An extremely high level of amino acid sequence conservation (greater than 95%) extends throughout all regions of the predicted mouse and human WT1 polypeptides. Two alternative splices within the WT1 transcript have been conserved between mice and humans, suggesting that these have functional significance. Expression of the mouse WT1 mRNA in fetal kidney increases during late gestation, peaks just prior to or shortly after birth, and declines dramatically by 15 days postpartum. Developmental regulation of WT1 expression appears to be selective for the kidney. The restriction of WT1 expression to a limited number of tissues is in contrast to previously described tumor suppressor genes. In addition, the narrow window of time during which WT1 is expressed at high levels in the kidney is consistent with the origin of Wilms' tumor from primitive nephroblasts and the postulated role of this gene as a negative regulator of growth.