During hominoid evolution the gamma-crystallins of the lens have decreased in quantity as well as complexity, a change correlated with an increased water content of the lens. To trace the molecular basis for the decrease in gamma-crystallin gene expression, we have characterized the structure and expression of the human gamma-crystallin gene family. We show that the human gamma-crystallin gene family consists of six complete genes (gamma A, gamma B, gamma C, gamma D, psi gamma E and psi gamma F) and one second exon fragment, the gamma G gene. Model experiments showed that, although the gamma G sequence is bordered by consensus splice sites, it is most likely transcriptionally inactive in the lens. In the human embryonic lens the gamma C and gamma D genes accounted for 81% of the gamma-crystallin transcripts, the gamma A gene contributed 14% and the gamma B gene only 5%. The composition of the gamma-crystallin mRNA pool changed only after birth, with the gamma D transcript as the only detectable transcript at ten years of age. The relative activities of the gamma A, gamma C and gamma D promoters in a transient expression system were in agreement with the ratio of their in vivo RNA levels, suggesting that the difference in accumulation of these transcripts is due to differences in the rate of transcription. The gamma B promoter was much more active than expected and had lost its tissue-specificity. Model experiments showed that the low yield of the gamma B transcript is due to post-transcriptional processes, most likely RNa instability mediated by third exon sequences. Together with previous data, our results show that the decrease in expression of the gamma-crystallin genes in the human lens is the consequence of gene loss (gamma G), inactivation of coding sequences (psi gamma E and psi gamma F), decrease in rate of transcription (gamma A), increase in rate of RNA turn-over (gamma B) and a delay in the onset of transcription during development.