Prolactin is a member of the growth hormone family and is required for the growth and terminal differentiation of the mammary gland. Ectopic production of this hormone has been reported in several species, including rat, sheep, goat and human mammary tissues. In this study, mouse mammary cell lines, xenographs in the mammary gland from these cell lines and from hyperplastic alveolar nodules, spontaneous tumors, and normal tissues were studied for de novo production of this growth factor. Prolactin transcripts were found by reverse transcriptase PCR in some neoplastic and preneoplastic tissues and in mouse mammary cell lines, NOG8 and CDNR4, but were not detected in the normal mouse mammary gland. Northern analysis revealed a 1 kb transcript for both cell lines that co-migrated with the prolactin pituitary transcript. Conditioned medium from NOG8 cells was positive for prolactin bioactivity by the Nb2 rat lymphoma cell proliferation assay, and Western analysis revealed the presence of immunoreactive proteins at M r 14 000 and 60 000. Prolactin-like bioactivity was not detected in conditioned medium from CDNR4 cells, but an immunoreactive protein of M r 60 000 was detected by Western analysis. The mouse mammary cell line, Comma D, was negative for prolactin transcripts; however, adenocarcinomas derived from inoculation of Comma D cells into the cleared mammary fat pad were positive by reverse transcriptase PCR in two of four cases. Hyperplastic outgrowths maintained in the cleared mammary fat pad as well as spontaneous tumors were positive for prolactin transcripts in one of four cases. These results suggest that prolactin can be produced ectopically by the neoplastic mouse mammary gland.