GnRH neurons play a critical role in regulating gonadotropin secretion, but their scattered distribution has prevented detailed understanding of their molecular and cellular properties in vivo. Using GnRH promoter-driven transgenics we have examined here the role of 5'- and 3'-murine GnRH sequences in specifying GnRH expression in the adult mouse. Transgenic mice bearing a lacZ construct incorporating 5.5 kb of 5'-, all the introns and exons, and 3.5 kb of 3'-murine GnRH sequence were found to express beta-galactosidase (betagal) immunoreactivity in approximately 85% of all GnRH neurons. Deletion of GnRH sequence 3' to exon II had no effect upon transgene expression in the GnRH population (89%) but resulted in the appearance of ectopic betagal immunoreactivity in several regions of the brain. The production of additional mice in which 5'-elements were deleted to leave only -2.1 kb of sequence resulted in an approximately 40% reduction in the number of GnRH neurons expressing betagal. Mice in which further deletion of 400 bp allowed only -1.7 kb of 5'-sequence to remain exhibited a complete absence of betagal immunoreactivity within GnRH and other neurons. These results suggest that elements 3' to exon II of the GnRH gene have little role in enabling GnRH expression within the GnRH phenotype but, instead, are particularly important in repressing the GnRH gene in non-GnRH neurons. In contrast, elements located between -2.1 and -1.7 kb of distal 5'-sequence appear to be critical for the in vivo activation of GnRH expression within GnRH neurons in the adult brain.