Previous studies of sucrase-isomaltase (SI) activities have shown this complex to be absent in the suckling rat and to appear during the weaning period. We describe here the cloning of a heterologous SI cDNA and its use for the quantitation of SI mRNA as a first step toward understanding the molecular basis of SI development. A survey of RNA from 12 tissues of mature rats by Northern blot analysis showed a 6-kb band of SI mRNA only in the small intestine. Within the latter, both sucrase activity and SI mRNA peaked in the jejunum. Assay of jejunal tissue from developing rats showed sucrase activity and SI mRNA to be first detectable at 18 days, to rise in parallel through 24 days, and then to diverge a little (enzyme activity being lower) by 36 days. When glucocorticoid was administered to 10-day-old rats, neither sucrase activity nor SI mRNA was detectable 12 h later. Both parameters were readily detected 24 h postinjection, although the mRNA had risen relatively more than the enzyme activity. The two parameters increased in concert through 5 days postinjection and then plateaued. We conclude that, with respect to distribution along the intestine and to normal and precocious development, activities of SI in the rat are determined primarily by the abundance of its mRNA.