Activation of the SCL (or TAL-1) gene as a result of chromosomal translocation or deletion is a frequent molecular lesion in acute T- cell leukemia. By virtue of its membership in the basic helix-loop- helix family of transcription factors, the SCL gene is a candidate to regulate events in hematopoietic differentiation. We have used polyclonal antibody raised against a bacterial expressed malE-SCL fusion protein to characterize SCL protein expression in postimplantation embryos and in neonatal and adult mice. SCL protein was detected at day 7.5 post coitum at both embryonic and extraembryonic sites, approximately 24 hours before the formation of recognizable hematopoietic elements. Expression then localized to blood islands of the yolk sac followed by localization to fetal liver and spleen, paralleling the hematopoietic activity of these tissues during development. SCL protein was detected in erythroblasts in fetal and adult spleen, myeloid cells and megakaryocytes in spleen and bone marrow, mast cells in skin, and in rare cells in fetal and adult thymus. In addition, SCL protein was noted in endothelial progenitors in blood islands and in endothelial cells and angioblasts in a number of organs at times coincident with their vascularization. SCL expression was also observed in other nonhematopoietic cell types in the developing skeletal and nervous systems. These results show that SCL expression is one of the earliest markers of mammalian hematopoietic development and are compatible with a role for this transcription factor in terminal differentiation of the erythroid and megakaryocytic lineages. SCL expression by cells in the thymus suggests that the gene may be active at some stage of T-cell differentiation and may be relevant to its involvement by chromosomal rearrangements in T- lymphoid leukemias. Finally, expression of the gene in developing brain, cartilage, and vascular endothelium indicates SCL may have actions in neural development, osteogenesis, and vasculogenesis, as well as in hematopoietic differentiation.