The distribution of collagens I, III, IV and V was studied by immunoperoxidase staining of early developing mouse submandibular glands. Collagen I was always present in the extracellular matrices of the mesenchyme and at the epithelial-mesenchymal interfaces of the 12-day gland with no clefts and of the 13-day gland with a few definite clefts. Collagen III was found in a similar fashion to that of collagen I in the mesenchyme, but the distribution at the epithelial-mesenchymal interfaces was very different. In the mid 12-day gland with a round lobule, collagen III was distributed at every slightly indented site of basal epithelial surfaces. At the late 12-day stage, a few initial signs of cleft appeared on the surface, at which accumulation of collagen III became evident. Intense immunoreaction of collagen III in the early 13-day gland was seen at the bottom of every narrow cleft. No specific accumulation of collagens IV and V was observed in clefts of the late 12-day and early 13-day glands. Staining of collagen III in the 12-day gland cultured for 10 h in the presence of bovine dental pulp collagenase inhibitor, which has been shown to stimulate cleft initiation, was very prominent at the bottom of every narrow cleft. These observations suggest that collagen III works as a key substance for either in vitro or in vivo cleft initiation of the mouse embryonic submandibular epithelium.