An extensive screening of the human neuronal nitric oxide synthase (nNOS) mRNAs in various human tissues and cell lines unraveled an extreme complexity in the transcription of this gene. Using 5' rapid amplification of cDNA ends (5'-RACE), ten different exons 1 (named 1a-1l) were identified. They were spliced in a cell-specific manner to a common exon 2, which bears the translational start site. Three first exons (1d, 1g and 1f) were used predominantly for the transcription of the nNOS gene (146 out of 197 5'-RACE clones contained these exons). Exon 1k was found alone, but in many instances was interposed between exons 1b, 1d, 1g, 1i or 1j and the common exon 2. In addition to the cell-specific heterogeneity of human nNOS transcripts, nNOS is highly regulated at the transcriptional level. In resting A673 neuroepithelioma cells, the prevalent nNOS transcript was the exon 1g mRNA (with minor expression of exons 1d+1k and exon 1f mRNAs). When the cells were treated with dibutyryl-cAMP, nNOS mRNA was markedly upregulated. This upregulation was solely due to an increase in exon 1f mRNA, while the expression of the other mRNA species remained unchanged. Human HaCat keratinocyte-like cells expressed the exon 1i+1k and 1i nNOS transcripts under basal conditions. When stimulated with epidermal growth factor, only the exon 1i+1k transcript was upregulated. Although these nNOS transcripts do not differ in their translated region, the various mRNAs may trigger post-transcriptional effects such as changes in mRNA stability and translation efficiency.