Pituitary adenylate cyclase activating peptide (PACAP) is a vasoactive intestinal peptide (VIP)-like hypothalamic peptide occurring in two forms, PACAP-27 and the C-terminally extended PACAP-38. The predicted rat and human PACAP sequence is identical to the isolated ovine one. In the present study, the occurrence and distribution of PACAP-like peptides were examined in the gut of several species by immunocytochemistry and immunochemistry using an antibody raised against PACAP-27. PACAP-like immunoreactivity was observed in nerve fibers in the gut wall of all species examined (chicken, mouse, rat, hamster, guinea-pig, ferret, cat, pig, sheep and man). In the chicken and human gut, immunoreactive fibers were numerous in all layers. In the other species examined the fibers were predominantly found in the myenteric ganglia and smooth muscle. Delicate PACAP-immunoreactive fibers were seen in the gastric mucosa of mouse, rat, hamster and man but not in the other species examined. The chicken proventriculus harbored numerous PACAP-immunoreactive endocrine cells which were identical with the serotonin-containing cells storing gastrin-releasing peptide. PACAP-immunoreactive nerve cell bodies were numerous in the submucous ganglia and moderate in number in the myenteric ganglia of the human gut. They were few in the intramural ganglia of the other species examined. Extrinsic denervation (performed on segments of rat and guinea-pig small intestine) did not visibly affect the PACAP innervation, indicating an intramural origin of most PACAP-immunoreactive fibers. Double immunostaining for VIP and PACAP revealed co-existence of the two peptides in nerve cell bodies and nerve fibers of the human and chicken gut and in fibers in the gastric mucosa of mouse and rat. In all other species examined and in all other locations in the gut PACAP-immunoreactive nerve cell bodies and nerve fibers were distinct from those storing VIP; many of them contained gastrin-releasing peptide instead. Immunochemistry revealed PACAP-like peptides in gut extracts of all species studied; upon high performance liquid chromatography the immunoreactive material co-eluted with synthetic PACAP-27. The distribution of PACAP-immunoreactive nerve cell bodies and nerve fibers in the gut wall suggests their involvement in the regulation of both motor and secretory activities.