Gelsolin is an actin-binding/severing protein expressed in intracellular and secreted forms. It is a major regulator of the form and function of the actin cytoskeleton in most all cells. Here we demonstrate that female mice with a targeted deletion of the gelsolin gene (Gsn-/-) have defects in mammary gland morphogenesis. Two distinct defects were identified in the gelsolin-null mammary gland. First, the mammary anlage from Gsn-/- mice failed to elongate at the onset of puberty and remained rudimentary until approximately 9 weeks of age, early block (Gsn-/-(EB)). Second, after the mammary epithelium had filled the mammary fat pad, a complete lack of terminal branching, or late block, was observed (Gsn-/-(LB)). The Gsn-/-(EB) was seen in 70% of Gsn-/- mice and appeared to be dependent on a modifier gene(s) in addition to the loss of gelsolin. Gsn-/-(LB) was observed in all Gsn-/- mice. Terminal end buds (TEBs) were not evident in the mammary anlage from Gsn-/-(EB) mice until approximately 9 weeks of age. Cellular proliferation in the terminal ductal regions of Gsn-/-(EB) females was detected by bromodeoxyuridine incorporation, but was less than that found in the TEBs of age-matched controls. In mice deficient for gelsolin, mammary gland architecture was unaltered at the histological level. Lobuloalveolar development was delayed in response to pregnancy in mammary glands of Gsn-/- mice but was otherwise normal. Lactation and involution in the gelsolin-null animals were similar to those of wild-type mice. Transplantation of epithelium devoid of gelsolin into a wild-type (GsnWT) mammary fat pad resulted in proper arborization of the ductal tree. Transplantation of GsnWT epithelium into the Gsn-/- fat pad recapitulated the lack of terminal branching seen in Gsn-/- females. These results indicate that gelsolin is required in the mammary stroma for proper ductal morphogenesis. Our results provide the first evidence of an actin regulatory protein affecting mammary ductal growth through stromal-epithelial communication. (C) 2000 Academic Press.