By integrating an agonist satiety signal, provided by alpha-melanocyte-stimulating hormone (alpha-MSH), and an antagonist signal, provided by agouti-related protein (AGRP), the melanocortin-4 receptor (MC4-R) is a key element in the hypothalamic control of food intake. Inactivation of the gene encoding this G protein-coupled receptor causes obesity in mice. In humans, frameshift mutations in MC4-R cause an early-onset dominant form of obesity in two families. In this study we find a high frequency (4%) of rare heterozygous MC4-R mutations in a large population of morbidly obese patients. No such mutations were found in controls. By analyzing the phenotypes of the probands carrying these mutations, we demonstrate that these patients display a common, nonsyndromic form of obesity. Interestingly, functional analysis of the mutant receptors indicates that obesity-associated defects in MC4-R range from loss of function to constitutive activation. Transmission of these mutations in the families of the carriers indicates a variable expressivity that is not related to the functional severity of the mutations. This variable expressivity of MC4-R-associated obesity is not due to variations in genes for alpha-MSH or AGRP. Taken together, these results demonstrate that MC4-R mutations are a frequent but heterogeneous genetic cause of morbid obesity.