Escherichia coli heat-stable enterotoxin (STa) mediates diarrheal disease by binding to and activating an intestinal transmembrane receptor, guanylate cyclase C (GC-C). To test the hypotheses that there was 1) increased perinatal expression of GC-C in rat intestine and 2) GC-C expression and STa binding in extraintestinal tissues of immature rat, we prepared whole cell membranes and total RNA from jejunum, ileum, colon, liver, kidney, heart, lung, brain, testis, and placenta of rats ranging in age from 12 days gestation to adult. Northern analysis demonstrated the presence of a unique 3.8-kb mRNA transcript at all ages in the jejunum, ileum, colon, and, to a lesser degree, in the testis. GC-C was also detected by Northern analysis in liver (from gestational age 18 days through 14 days postnatal) and in placenta. Steady-state mRNA encoding GC-C was not detected by Northern analysis in the other organs examined. GC-C-specific mRNA expression was greatest in the perinatal period in the jejunum, ileum, and liver. Specific binding of 125I-labeled STa was found in each of the tissue membranes in which GC-C mRNA was present; binding was not present in those tissues that had no detectable GC-C mRNA. The existence of GC-C in extraintestinal organs in the rat, and the developmental changes in GC-C expression support our hypothesis that GC-C, apart from its role as an STa receptor in mediating diarrheal disease, also serves as a receptor for an endogenous ligand.