Specific keratin cDNA probes and monospecific antikeratin antisera were used to analyze mouse epidermis and epidermal tumors for the expression of a type I 47-kDa keratin, K13, normally associated with terminal differentiation of internal stratified epithelia. We demonstrated that this keratin was virtually absent from the entire body epidermis at various stages of development. Also, it was not detected in various forms of acute and chronic epidermal hyperproliferation or in epidermal cells cultured under conditions that favored either cell proliferation or in vitro differentiation. In contrast, K13 was consistently expressed in squamous cell carcinomas of the skin induced by 7,12-dimethylbenz[a]anthracene and 12-O-tetradecanoylphorbol-13-acetate (TPA), whereas papillomas obtained by the same two-stage protocol were distinctly heterogeneous with regard to the expression of this keratin. These findings were true for two different strains of mice (NMRI and Sencar). Papillomas collected from Sencar mice after 12 wk or from NMRI mice after 15 wk of promotion with TPA were either negative for K13 or elicited variable amounts of this keratin. In all cases of positive expression of K13 in tumors, as in normal stratified internal epithelia, both the keratin protein and its mRNA invariably occurred in the differentiating cell compartments. In contrast to what we found in internal stratified epithelia, however, K13 was expressed without its commonly encountered type II 57-kDa partner, K4. Papillomas negative for the K13 protein were also devoid of K13 transcripts. This indicates that the aberrant K13 expression in tumors is regulated at the level of transcription. Our results suggest that K13 may provide a marker for malignant conversion in the mouse two-stage skin carcinogenesis model and may be especially suited for studies of gene expression regulation.