We have investigated expression of the Xist gene in mouse female adult kidney, embryos and embryonic stem (ES) cells undergoing in vitro differentiation as embryoid bodies. Using the quantitative RT-PCR single nucleotide primer extension (SNuPE) assay, we found that the amount of Xist RNA in adult kidney of three mouse strains was less than approximately 2000 transcripts per cell, with only modest differences between strains carrying different Xce alleles. Female embryos 7.5 days post coitum had the same number of Xist transcripts per cell as isogenic adult tissue. Using quantitative oligonucleotide hybridization assays after RT-PCR, we investigated Xist expression in ES lines heterozygous at the Pgk-1 and Xist loci. We found that, while in most (XX) ES lines Xist RNA levels increased during embryoid body formation, the levels seen were less than 10% those found in adult female kidney. In addition, we found that the allelic ratio of Xist transcripts from reciprocal (XX) ES cell lines differentiating in vitro was identical to that of isogenic 10.5 to 11.5 day female embryos. These latter results suggest that there is no pattern of preferential paternal imprinting during days 1 to 9 of in vitro differentiation of ES cells. However, the influence of the Xce locus on the randomness of X-inactivation in embryos seems to operate also in ES cell lines. Our overall conclusion is that the low levels of Xist RNA in female kidney, embryos and differentiating (XX) ES cells are compatible only with models that do not require Xist RNA to cover the entire inactive X chromosome.