Glial cell line-derived neurotrophic factor (GDNF), a member of the GDNF family of neurotrophic factors, promotes the survival and function of several neuronal populations in the peripheral and central nervous system. In the present study, expression of GDNF mRNA in the shaft of adult rat penis is demonstrated. In situ hybridization revealed GDNF mRNA expression in cells lying in the narrow zone between the tunica albuginea and the cavernous tissue. Most subtunical cells exhibited immunoreactivity for vimentin and S100 beta, but they did not stain for smooth muscle alpha actin or PGP9.5. This suggests that the GDNF mRNA-expressing cells may have a mesenchymal origin. Also retrograde axonal transport of intracavernously injected 125I-labeled GDNF in penile parasympathetic and sensory neurons is shown. The transport was inhibited by excess unlabeled GDNF, whereas excess cytochrome c had no effect. This is in agreement with the view that the transport was mediated by binding to specific receptors located on axon terminals. In addition, this study demonstrates expression of GDNF family receptor-alpha 3 (GFR alpha 3) mRNA in most adrenergic, but only in a minor part (5.3%) of the penis-projecting adult rat major pelvic ganglion neurons, as well as in almost half (45.6%) of the penile S1 dorsal root ganglion neurons. In conclusion, the present data suggest that GDNF may act as a neurotrophic factor for subpopulations of adult rat penile parasympathetic and sensory neurons.