The ecmA (pDd63) and ecmB (pDd56) genes encode extracellular matrix proteins of the slime sheath and stalk tube of Dictyostelium discoideum. Using fusion genes containing the promoter of one or other gene coupled to an immunologically detectable reporter, we previously identified two classes of prestalk cells in the tip of the migrating slug; a central core of pstB cells, which express the ecmB gene, surrounded by pstA cells, which express the ecmA gene. PstB cells lie at the position where stalk tube formation is initiated at culmination and we show that they act as its founders. As culmination proceeds, pstA cells transform into pstB cells by activating the ecmB gene as they enter the stalk tube. The prespore region of the slug contains a population of cells, termed anterior-like cells (ALC), which have the characteristics of prestalk cells. We show that the ecmA and ecmB genes are expressed at a low level in ALC during slug migration and that their expression in these cells is greatly elevated during culmination. Previous observations have shown that ALC sort to surround the prespore cells during culmination (Sternfeld and David, 1982 Devl Biol. 93, 111-118) and we find just such a distribution for pstB cells. We believe that the ecmB protein plays a structural role in the stalk tube and its presence, as a cradle around the spore head, suggests that it may play a further function, perhaps in ensuring integrity of the spore mass during elevation. If this interpretation is correct, then a primary role of anterior-like cells may be to form these structures at culmination. We previously identified a third class of prestalk cells, pstO cells, which lie behind pstA cells in the slug anterior and which appeared to express neither the ecmA nor the ecmB gene. Using B-galactosidase fusion constructs, which give more sensitive detection of gene expression, we now find that these cells express the ecmA gene but at a much lower level than pstA cells. We also show that expression of the ecmA gene becomes uniformly high throughout the prestalk zone when slugs are allowed to migrate in the light. Overhead light favours culmination and it may be that increased expression of the ecmA gene in the pst 'O' region is a preparatory step in the process.