We measured expression of the MDR1 gene (also known as the PGY1 gene) in the human gastrointestinal tract. MDR1 messenger RNA (mRNA) levels were elevated in 13 of 15 colorectal carcinoma specimens and in six of 13 gastric carcinoma specimens. Well-differentiated colorectal carcinomas contained significantly higher concentrations of MDR1 mRNA than moderately differentiated colorectal carcinomas. Similarly, moderately differentiated gastric carcinomas contained higher concentrations of MDR1 mRNA than poorly differentiated gastric carcinomas. MDR1 gene expression in normal colorectal and gastric tissues adjacent to carcinomas was similar to that in the carcinomas. MDR1 gene expression in xenografts of colorectal and gastric carcinomas in nude mice was also investigated. Elevated expression of the MDR1 gene was seen in only four of 18 xenografts of colorectal carcinoma and was not seen in any xenografts of gastric carcinoma. P-glycoprotein was distributed over the luminal surface of the colorectal carcinoma. These results imply that the higher levels of MDR1 mRNA found in well-differentiated carcinomas derived from colorectal tissues are the results of increased expression of the MDR1 gene in the luminal surface cells. The level of expression of the MDR1 gene in colorectal and gastric carcinomas appears to correlate with the degree of differentiation and also appears to be affected by transplantation into nude mice.