SPARC (Secreted Protein that is Acidic and Rich in Cysteine), a Ca++-binding glycoprotein also known as osteonectin, is produced in significant amounts by injured or proliferating cells in vitro. To elucidate the possible function of SPARC in growth and remodeling, we examined its distribution in embryonic and adult murine tissues. Immunohistochemistry on adult mouse tissues revealed a preferential association of SPARC protein with epithelia exhibiting high rates of turnover (gut, skin, and glandular tissue). Fetal tissues containing high levels of SPARC included heart, thymus, lung, and gut. In the 14-18-day developing fetus, SPARC expression was particularly enhanced in areas undergoing chondrogenesis, osteogenesis, and somitogenesis, whereas 10-day embryos exhibited selective staining for this protein in Reichert's membrane, maternal sinuses, and trophoblastic giant cells. SPARC displayed a Ca++-dependent affinity for hydrophobic surfaces and was not incorporated into the extracellular matrix produced by cells in vitro. We propose that in some tissues SPARC associates with cell surfaces to facilitate proliferation during embryonic morphogenesis and normal cell turnover in the adult.