Glucocorticoid receptor (GR) gene expression is regulated in a complex tissue-specific manner, notably by early-life environmental events that program tissue GR levels. We have identified and characterized several new rat GR mRNAs. All encode a common protein, but differ in their 5'-leader sequences as a consequence of alternate splicing of, potentially, 11 different exon 1 sequences. Most are located in a 3-kb CpG island, upstream of exon 2, that exhibits substantial promoter activity in transfected cells. Ribonuclease (RNase) protection analysis demonstrated significant levels of six alternate exons 1 in vivo in rat, with differences between liver, hippocampus, and thymus reflecting tissue-specific differences in promoter activity. Two of the alternate exons 1 (exons 1(6) and 1(10)) were expressed in all tissues examined, together present in 77-87% of total GR mRNA. The remaining GR transcripts contained tissue-specific alternate first exons. Importantly, tissue-specific first exon usage was altered by perinatal environmental manipulations. Postnatal handling, which permanently increases GR in the hippocampus, causing attenuation of stress responses, selectively elevated GR mRNA containing the hippocampus-specific exon 1(7). Prenatal glucocorticoid exposure, which increases hepatic GR expression and produces adult hyperglycemia, decreased the proportion of hepatic GR mRNA containing the predominant exon 1(10), suggesting an increase in a minor exon 1 variant. Such tissue specificity of promoter usage allows differential GR regulation and programming.