The temporal pattern of expression of genes for several growth factor ligands and receptors was examined in preimplantation water buffalo embryos and oviduct epithelial cells using RT-PCR. The identity of the resulting PCR products was confirmed by their expected size, restriction analysis, Southern blot hybridization and nucleotide sequence analysis. Preimplantation stage embryos from the one-cell to the blastocyst stage were derived after maturation, fertilization and culture of oocytes in vitro. Expression of members of the insulin-like growth factor (IGF) family was observed predominantly in preimplantation stage embryos and oviduct epithelial cells. Similarly, transcripts encoding insulin and IGF-I receptors were detected at each stage of embryonic development. The mRNA transcript of the IGF-I receptor was not detected in oviduct epithelial cells, but a prominent band corresponding to the insulin receptor was observed. Insulin and IGF-II mRNA were expressed as maternal transcripts that were not detected at the two- to four-cell stage but were present as zygotic transcripts at the eight-cell stage. Transcripts encoding IGF-I were detected in oviduct epithelial cells, but were not observed in any of the preimplantation stage embryos. Transforming growth factor (TGF) α and β and epidermal growth factor mRNA transcripts were not detected in any of the preimplantation stage embryos. These results indicate that IGF-I acts via a paracrine mechanism to promote growth and development of preimplantation water buffalo embryos. Similarly, IGF-II appears to act through a heterologous autocrine mechanism via the IGF-I or the insulin receptor. Furthermore, the presence of TGF-α in oviduct epithelial cells indicates that it may have a critical role during development.