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Normal trophoblast of the human placenta elaborates at least two major protein hormones, chorionic gonadotrophin (hCG) and placental lactogen (hPL). Molar and choriocarcinoma tissues characteristically synthesize large amounts of hCG and hPL. To examine the role of trophoblast differentiation in the expression of the hCG and hPL genes, we studied the cytological distribution of their mRNAs in tissue sections of human hydatidiform mole and choriocarcinoma by in situ hybridization. Histologically, these tissues are in different stages of cellular differentiation. In normal placenta, hCG alpha/beta mRNA can be localized to some cytotrophoblasts and primarily to the syncytium, whereas hPL mRNA appears only in the syncytial layer. In hydatidiform mole, which still retains placental villous morphology, the hPL gene and hCG alpha and beta genes are expressed but are poorly localized because of the admixture of cyto- and syncytiotrophoblasts. By contrast, choriocarcinoma, which is devoid of placental villous pattern but in which the cyto- and syncytiotrophoblast-like components are distinguishable, expresses hCG alpha and beta in the syncytial-like areas but little, if any, hPL. These results suggest that a certain level of trophoblast differentiation, such as villous formation, is associated with hPL expression, while the hCG alpha gene and the hCG beta gene can be expressed in more disorganized tissues which contain cytotrophoblastic elements.