The New Zealand White rabbit provides a widely used animal model for the human acetylation polymorphism, which confers marked interindividual variation in the effect and toxicity of numerous drugs, chemicals, and potential carcinogens. The relationship of a recently isolated cDNA clone, designated rnat, to genetically polymorphic arylamine N-acetyltransferase (NAT; acetyl-CoA:arylamine N-acetyltransferase, EC 22.214.171.124) of rabbit liver was established by its expression in monkey kidney COS-1 cells: (i) cytosols from transfected cultures contained high levels of an Ac-CoA-dependent NAT activity, which was kinetically indistinguishable from that observed in cytosols from livers of genetically rapid-acetylator rabbits; (ii) transfected cells also contained an immunoreactive protein, recognized by NAT-specific antibodies, with identical electrophoretic mobility to NAT from rabbit liver. The rnat clone and anti-NAT antibodies were then used to study the relationship between NAT activity, liver enzyme protein, and the level of mRNA in livers from in vivo phenotyped rapid- and slow-acetylator rabbits. Livers from slow acetylators were devoid of both immunodetectable NAT protein and its corresponding mRNA. Analysis of genomic DNA with a panel of restriction enzymes revealed the loss of specific hybridizing bands in the DNA of slow-acetylator rabbits. These data strongly suggest that defective arylamine N-acetylation in the rabbit model is caused by a gene deletion resulting in an absence of specific mRNA and NAT enzyme protein.