Beta-nerve growth factor (NGF) is a protein necessary for the survival and maintenance of sympathetic and sensory neurons that appears to be produced by the target tissues of these neurons in vivo. Both denervation and the culture of explants of one model target, the rat iris, leads to an increase in the NGF content, suggesting that innervating neurons may regulate a step in synthesis or turnover of NGF. To determine whether there is a change in synthesis controlled at the mRNA level, the rat iris has been assayed for its content of NGF mRNA after surgical and chemical denervation and after explant into culture. Using a sensitive blot hybridization assay, a large, rapid increase in the content of NGF mRNA was observed upon explant of the rat iris. The increase was readily detectable within 1 h, reached a maximum increase of 10- to 20-fold by 6 to 12 h, and was still evident after 3 d in culture. The distribution of NGF mRNA in different areas of the iris does not change during this time. This rapid increase in NGF mRNA is also seen in the fully innervated iris in vivo after trauma to the anterior chamber. In contrast, denervation to varying degrees in situ had no effect on NGF mRNA levels. Neither removal of sympathetic innervation by surgical or chemical methods nor combined surgical removal of sympathetic and sensory innervation detectably altered NGF mRNA content. Thus, denervation of the rat iris in situ does not cause the observed accumulation of NGF by increasing the level of NGF mRNA, and the increase in NGF content must be due to other factors.