Two mRNAs are transcribed from the extracellular matrix protein 1 gene (Ecm1): Ecm1a and an alternatively spliced Ecm1b. We studied Ecm1 mRNA expression and localization during endochondral bone formation and investigated the effect of recombinant human (rh) Ecm1a protein on organ cultures of embryonic mouse metatarsals, Of the two transcripts, Ecm1a mRNA was predominantly expressed in fetal metacarpals from day 16 to 19 after gestation. Ecm1 expression was not found in 16- and 17-day-old metatarsals of which the perichondrium was removed. In situ hybridization and immunohistochemistry demonstrated Ecm1 expression in the connective tissues surrounding the developing bones, but not in the cartilage. Biological effects of rhEcm1a protein on fetal metatarsal cultures were biphasic: at low concentrations, Ecm1a stimulated alkaline phosphatase activity and had no effect on mineralization, whereas at higher concentrations, Ecm1a dose dependently inhibited alkaline phosphatase activity and mineralization, These results suggest that Ecm1a acts as a novel negative regulator of endochondral bone formation. (C) 2001 by Elsevier Science Inc, All rights reserved.