We have isolated, purified and characterized six individual gamma-crystallin polypeptides present in the rat lens. Comparison of their amino acid compositions with the known structure of the six gamma-crystallin genes permits a one-to-one correspondence to be made between each protein synthesized and the encoding gene. This demonstrates that each of the six genes is actually expressed in vivo. Two classes of three gamma-crystallins each, which we have designated classes gamma ABC and gamma DEF, are known to exist, on the basis of internal sequence homology. We have measured the temperature-dependent phase-separation characteristics of solutions of the six purified gamma-crystallins, and find that the three members of the gamma DEF class (gamma 2-2, gamma 3-1 and gamma 4-1) are all cryo-proteins with relatively high phase-separation temperatures, whereas the three gamma ABC crystallins (gamma 1-1, gamma 1-2 and gamma 2-1) do not show phase separation above -7 degrees C. We have measured the spatial distribution in rat lens of each of the alpha-, beta- and gamma-crystallins as a function of age from 1 to 420 days, using size-exclusion and ion-exchange high-pressure liquid chromatography (HPLC). Our findings in the cortical layer permit us to establish the differential synthesis of each of the crystallins during lens development. Particular attention has been devoted to the spatial and temporal distribution of the six individual gamma-crystallins. Up to birth, synthesis of the three components of the gamma DEF class predominates, and in particular that of gamma 2-2. In subsequent development the three components of the gamma ABC class assume a greater proportion of monomeric crystallins synthesized, while beta s-crystallin synthesis predominates in late development. Our analysis of different layers within single lenses provides novel information on spatial gradients of the water-soluble and water-insoluble protein fractions as a function of age. We consider the consequences of these findings for lens transparency and opacity in both rat and mouse lens. We show that the high concentrations of gamma DEF-crystallins appear to be responsible for the opacity known to occur in young rat lenses. We conclude from these observations that close control of the differential synthesis of gamma-crystallins plays an important role in maintaining lens transparency during development.