Developing motor axons induce synaptic specializations in muscle fibers, including preferential transcription of acetylcholine receptor (AChR) subunit genes by subsynaptic nuclei. One candidate nerve-derived signaling molecule is AChR-inducing activity (ARIA)/heregulin, a ligand of the erbB family of receptor tyrosine kinases. Here, we asked whether ARIA and erbB kinases are expressed in patterns compatible with their proposed signaling roles. In developing muscle, ARIA was present not only at synaptic sites, but also in extrasynaptic regions of the muscle fiber. ARIA was synthesized, rather than merely taken up, by muscle cells, as indicated by the presence of ARIA mRNA in muscle and of ARIA protein in a clonal muscle cell line. ARIA-responsive myotubes expressed both erbB2 and erbB3, but little EGFR/erbB1 or erbB4. In adults, erbB2 and erbB3 were localized to the postsynaptic membrane. ErbB3 was restricted to the postsynaptic membrane perinatally, at a time when ARIA was still broadly distributed. Thus, our data are consistent with a model in which ARIA interacts with erbB kinases on the muscle cell surface to provide a local signal that induces synaptic expression of AChR genes. However, much of the ARIA is produced by muscle, not nerve, and the spatially restricted response may result from the localization of erbB kinases as well as of ARIA. Finally, we show that erbB3 is not concentrated at synaptic sites in mutant mice that lack rapsyn, a cytoskeletal protein required for AChR clustering, suggesting that pathways for synaptic AChR expression and clustering interact.