2-Arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG) is a naturally occurring monoglyceride that activates cannabinoid receptors and meets several key requisites of an endogenous cannabinoid substance. It is present in the brain (where its levels are 170-folds higher than those of anandamide), is produced by neurons in an activity- and calcium-dependent manner, and is rapidly eliminated. The mechanism of 2-AG inactivation is not completely understood, but is thought to involve carrier-mediated transport into cells followed by enzymatic hydrolysis. We examined the possible role of the serine hydrolase, monoglyceride lipase (MGL), in brain 2-AG inactivation. We identified by homology screening a cDNA sequence encoding for a 303-amino acid protein, which conferred MGL activity upon transfection to COS-7 cells. Northern blot and in situ hybridization analyses revealed that MGL mRNA is unevenly present in the rat brain, with highest levels in regions where CB1 cannabinoid receptors are also expressed (hippocampus, cortex, anterior thalamus and cerebellum). Immunohistochemical studies in the hippocampus showed that MGL distribution has striking laminar specificity, suggesting a presynaptic localization of the enzyme. Adenovirus-mediated transfer of MGL cDNA into rat cortical neurons increased the degradation of endogenously produced 2-AG in these cells, whereas no such effect was observed on anandamide degradation. These results indicate that hydrolysis via MGL may be a primary route of 2-AG inactivation in intact neuronal cells.