Using histochemical detection, we have visualized in situ the complete metabolic pathway for the degradation of purine nucleotides. From the tongue to the ileum, diverse epithelial cell types lining the lumen of the mouse gastrointestinal (GI) tract strongly coexpress each of the five key purine catabolic enzymes. Dramatic increases in the expression of each enzyme occurred during postnatal maturation of the GI tract. Using in situ hybridization, an intense accumulation of adenosine deaminase (ADA) mRNA was detected only within GI epithelial cells undergoing postmitotic differentiation. In a similar manner, at the developing maternal-fetal interface, high level expression of the purine catabolic pathway also occurred in a unique subset of maternal decidual cells previously known to express high levels of alkaline phosphatase and ADA. This induction occurred almost immediately after implantation in the periembryonic maternal decidual cells, shortly thereafter in antimesometrial decidual cells, and later in cells of the placental decidua basalis: all of which contain cell types thought to be undergoing programmed cell death. The expression of the pathway at the site of embryo implantation appears to be critical because its pharmacologic inhibition during pregnancy has been found to be embryolethal or teratogenic. Purine destruction at these nutritional interfaces (placenta and gastrointestinal tract) seem to override any potential economy of purine salvage, and may represent biochemical adaptation to nucleic acid breakdown occurring in the context of dietary digestion or extensive programmed cell death.