The red colour of tomato (Lycopersicon esculentum) fruits is provided by the carotenoid pigment lycopene whose concentration increases dramatically during the ripening process. A single dominant gene, Del, in the tomato mutant Delta changes the fruit colour to orange as a result of accumulation of delta-carotene at the expense of lycopene. The cDNA for lycopene epsilon-cyclase (CrtL-e), which converts lycopene to delta-carotene, was cloned from tomato. The primary structure of CRTL-E is 71% identical to the homologous polypeptide from Arabidopsis and 36% identical to the tomato lycopene beta-cyclase, CRTL-B. The CrtL-e gene was mapped to a single locus on chromosome 12 of the tomato linkage map. This locus co-segregated with the Del gene. In the wild-type tomato, the transcript level of CrtL-e decreases at the 'breaker' stage of ripening to a non-detectable level in the ripe fruit. In contrast, it increases approximately 30-fold during fruit ripening in the Delta plants. The Delta mutation does not affect carotenoid composition nor the mRNA level of CrtL-e in leaves and flowers. These results strongly suggest that the mutation Del is an allele of the gene for epsilon-cyclase. Together with previous data, our results indicate that the primary mechanism that controls lycopene accumulation in tomato fruits is based on the differential regulation of expression of carotenoid biosynthesis genes. During fruit development, the mRNA levels for the lycopene-producing enzymes phytoene synthase (PSY) and phytoene desaturase (PDS) increase, while the mRNA levels of the genes for the lycopene beta- and epsilon-cyclases, which convert lycopene to either beta- or delta-carotene, respectively, decline and completely disappear.