The effect of acute exposure to cold on the expression of the ob (obese) gene, which encodes a protein that plays a critical role in the regulation of energy balance and body weight, has been examined in epididymal white adipose tissue of mice. Overnight (18 h) exposure of mice to a temperature of 4 degrees C led to the disappearance of ob mRNA in epididymal white fat, and subsequent studies showed that a cold-induced loss of ob mRNA could occur in as little as 2-4 h of exposure to 4 degrees C. When mice exposed to cold for 18 h were returned to the warm (24 degrees C), there was a rapid stimulation of the expression of the ob gene, the mRNA returning within 2.5 h. Administration of noradrenaline led to a reduction in the level of ob mRNA in mice maintained in the warm, while isoprenaline resulted in the disappearance of the mRNA; these changes in ob mRNA were paralleled by similar changes in lipoprotein lipase mRNA. In contrast to white fat, the level of lipoprotein lipase mRNA in brown adipose tissue was increased by noradrenaline and isoprenaline. It is concluded that there is a cold-induced suppression of ob gene expression in white adipose tissue of mice and that this is mediated primarily by the sympathetic system. The profound effect of cold on ob gene expression indicates that the ob system relates to energy expenditure, as well as to satiety.