Severe intrauterine growth restriction (IUGR) is characterized by abnormal placentation. Mouse gene knockout studies show that an absence of either hepatocyte growth factor (HGF) or its receptor, c-met, leads to intrauterine death secondary to severe IUGR with deficient placentation. In this study, immunocytochemistry localized HGF protein throughout placental villi across gestation, whereas c-met protein was localized only to the perivillous trophoblast and vascular endothelium. Within the IUGR placentae, a reduction in HGF immunostaining within the villous stroma was observed. HGF mRNA was strongly expressed in the perivascular tissue around the stem villous arteries throughout gestation, with weaker expression within the villous stroma and the terminal villi. c-met mRNA expression was limited to the perivillous trophoblast, particularly in the first trimester, with only a faint hybridization signal from the villous stroma. Placental mRNA expression was examined quantitatively using a ribonuclease protection assay: HGF and c-met mRNA expression increased from the first to the second trimester, reaching a zenith before decreasing again through the third trimester to term. HGF mRNA levels were significantly reduced in the IUGR placentae (P = 0.036), whereas c-met mRNA expression was within the normal range for gestation. These findings suggest that HGF derived from the perivascular tissue of stem villous arteries may play an important role in controlling normal villous development. Whereas reduced expression of HGF within IUGR placentae does not prove a causative link with abnormal villous development, the association lends support to this possibility.