Probes derived from clones bearing cDNAs corresponding to the alpha subunit of human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG) and human placental lactogen (hPL) were used to localize their respective mRNAs cytologically in sections of first trimester and term human placenta. hPL mRNA was exclusively localized to the syncytial layer, hCG alpha mRNA was found in the syncytial layer and also in some differentiating cytotrophoblasts. Hybridization was specific because no signal was observed when labeled pBR322 was hybridized to placental sections or when the placental probes were hybridized to sections of human tonsils. In addition, RNA in placental interstitial cells did not hybridize with hCG alpha and hPL probes. Hybridization with the hCG alpha probe was much greater in first trimester than in term sections, whereas hPL signals were comparable in both first trimester and term placentae. Syncytial formation proceeds through cellular intermediates of cytotrophoblastic origin, and the data suggest that transcription of the hCG alpha gene is initiated before the completion of syncytial formation. In contrast, hPL mRNA synthesis starts later in trophoblast differentiation, likely after the stage of syncytial formation. The data also suggested that hCG alpha mRNA synthesis becomes attenuated but that hPL is transcribed at a rather constant rate during placental development.