IN mammalian muscle, the subunit composition of the nicotinic acetylcholine receptor (AChR) and the distribution of AChRs along the fibre are developmentally regulated. In fetal muscle, AChRs are distributed over the entire fibre length whereas in adult fibres they are concentrated at the end-plate. We have used in situ hybridization techniques to measure the development of the synaptic localization of the messenger RNAs (mRNAs) encoding the alpha-subunit and the epsilon-subunit of the rat muscle AChR. The alpha-subunit is present in both fetal and adult muscle, whereas the epsilon-subunit appears postnatally and specifies the mature AChR subtype. The synaptic localization of alpha-subunit mRNA in adult fibres may arise from the selective down-regulation of constitutively expressed mRNA from extrasynaptic fibre segments. In contrast, epsilon-subunit mRNA appears locally at the site of neuromuscular contact and its accumulation at the end-plate is not dependent on the continued presence of the nerve terminal very early during synapse formation. This suggests that epsilon-subunit mRNA expression is induced locally via a signal which is restricted to the end-plate region and is dependent on the presence of the nerve only during a short period of early neuromuscular contact. Evidently, several mechanisms operate to confine AChR mRNAs to the adult end-plate region, and the levels of alpha-subunit and epsilon-subunit mRNAs depend on these mechanisms to differing degrees.