Abstract Mouse mammary ductal cells cultured in type I collagen gels give rise to three-dimensional multicellular outgrowths consisting of thin spikes which are often branched, and which may have pointed or blunt ends. The significance of these spikes to normal ductal morphogenesis has been unclear, since identical structures are not known to occur in vivo; conversely, it has not been possible to maintain in gel culture the highly structured end buds which are characteristic of ductal elongation in the animal. In order to evaluate whether the pattern of radiating spikes observed in collagen gel cultures results from chemical or physical peculiarities of the culture environment, a small volume of unpolymerized type I collagen solution was injected into mammary gland-free fat pads of young adult mice. After the bubble of collagen had polymerized, an implant of mammary ductal epithelium was introduced into the center of the gel. Histological examination of the implants after 3 to 6 days of growth revealed numerous small epithelial spikes, similar to those observed in gel culture, extending into the fibrous matrix. The early stages of regeneration of mammary implants placed in gland-free fat pads were then examined without the addition of exogenous collagen. In cases where the epithelium happened to contact a fibrous region of the fatty stroma, spikes were also seen to form in these natural collagenous substrates. Whether or not exogenous collagen was used, normal end buds were formed only when epithelial spikes contacted adipocytes. It was concluded that the three-dimensional pattern of radiating tubules in collagen gels in vitro is not merely an artifact of culture, but has a counterpart in vivo whereever regenerating mammary epithelium is surrounded by fibrous stroma. A model is presented in which the pattern of epithelial outgrowth is determined by the physical characteristics of the surrounding stroma; in collagen matrix a comparatively primitive and unspecialized type of morphogenesis occurs which may not require the participation of stromal cells. In contrast, epithelial-adipocyte interactions appear to be necessary for the formation of end buds and subsequent morphogenesis of fully structured mammary ducts.