The introduction of a targeted insertion mutation into exon 2 of the gene coding for the glucocorticoid receptor (GR) enabled production of glucocorticoid receptor knock-out (GRKO) mice. GRKO mice on a C57BL/6/129sv mixed genetic background show a variable phenotype, with 90% of -/- mice dying at birth with respiratory insufficiency but 10% of mutant mice surviving to maturity. To investigate the possibility of residual GR expression in surviving GRKO mice we have measured binding of the synthetic glucocorticoid dexamethasone in tissue extracts from adrenalectomized mice. High affinity binding of dexamethasone in protein extracts of liver, kidney, lung and brain from adult GRKO mice is found at levels 30-60% those in wild-type mice, with heterozygotes (+/-) having intermediate levels. PCR and ribonuclease protection analysis showed comparable levels of GR mRNA on the 3' side of the gene-targeted insertional mutation in exon 2 of the GR gene, with almost no GR mRNA detected from exons 1 and 2 on the 5' side of the gene-targeted insertional mutation. Western blot analysis using a C-terminal specific GR antibody detects a 39 kDa GR fragment in extracts from adult GRKO mice. Despite the evidence for expression of a ligand-binding domain fragment of the glucocorticoid receptor these mice are profoundly glucocorticoid resistant, with elevated levels of plasma ACTH and corticosterone. Thymocytes from adult and fetal GRKO mice are resistant to dexamethasone-induced apoptosis and cultured fetal hepatocytes from GRKO mice are completely refractory to glucocorticoid induction of the gluconeogenic enzyme glucose-6-phosphatase. Thus although the surviving adult homozygous GRKO mice express a dexamethasone-binding GR fragment, their classic target tissues remain profoundly glucocorticoid insensitive.