Xist RNA localizes to the inactive X chromosome in cells of late cleavage stage female mouse embryos (Sheardown et al., 1997: Cell 91:99-107). Fluorescence in situ hybridization (FISH), however, does not quantify the number of Xist transcripts per nucleus. We have used real-time reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) to measure Xist RNA levels in single preimplantation embryos and to establish developmental profiles in both female and male samples. The gender of each embryo was readily established based on Xist RNA levels, by counting Xist gene copies per cell, and by independent detection of the presence/absence of Sry, a Y chromosome-specific gene. Xist expression in males was found to be very low at all stages, as suggested by FISH. In contrast, female embryos contained measurable levels of Xist mRNA starting at the late 2-cell stage and rapidly accumulated Xist transcripts until morula stage. Xist RNA accumulation per embryo then reached a plateau, while cell division continued. We propose that during early cleavage high enough levels of Xist mRNA are transcribed to generate a pool of unbound molecules. This pool would serve to temporarily maintain X chromosome inactivation without additional transcription while the trophectoderm and inner cell mass (ICM) differentiate. The ICM would then loose the paternally imprinted pattern of X inactivation originally present in all embryonic cells.