We describe the cloning and initial characterization of a novel cDNA from human embryonal carcinoma (EC) cells. This cDNA, which we named human growth differentiation factor 3 (hGDF3), encodes the homologue of mouse GDF3, a TGFbeta superfamily member belonging to the Growth/Differentiation Factors. We have analysed the expression of hGDF3 in human embryonal carcinoma cell lines and in primary testicular germ cell tumours of adolescents and adults (TGCTs). Expression of hGDF3 in human EC cell lines is stem cell-specific, is down-regulated upon RA-mediated differentiation and is increased upon culture of the cells in the presence of activin A. In TGCTs, hGDF3 expression is low in seminomas, while expression in non-seminomas is readily detectable and appears to be associated with the EC and yolk sac components in the tumours. We have also mapped the hGDF3 locus to the short arm of human chromosome 12, a region consistently overrepresented in human testicular germ cell tumours. Thus, hGDF3 represents an embryonal carcinoma stem cell-associated marker both in vitro and in vivo.