Differential screening of a human epididymal cDNA library led to the isolation and characterization of a major epididymis-specific cDNA clone family, referred to as HE3. More detailed sequence and PCR analysis identified two different but homologous gene transcripts, HE3 alpha and HE3 beta. The former represents an mRNA of ca. 1 kb, encoding a putative small secretory polypeptide of 14903 MW. The HE3 beta transcript was only found as incomplete 3' fragments. Analysis of human genomic DNA by Southern blotting suggested the presence in the human genome of at least three independent HE3-related genes. Isolation of genomic clones for the HE3 alpha gene showed this to contain a single intron of 1.4 kb in the 5' noncoding region. Although genomic clones corresponding to HE3 beta could not be found, a third highly homologous gene, HE3 gamma, was identified as a potential pseudogene. Neither nucleotide nor encoded amino acid sequences of the HE3 gene family are related to any other known sequence in the central databases, and thus represents a novel human gene family, with at least three nonallelic members. Northern hybridization analysis showed that HE3 gene products are specifically expressed in the human epididymis, and not in any other tissue examined. Furthermore, except for the pig, no other nonprimate species has been identified to express homologous sequences in the epididymis. RNase protection assays showed that both the HE3 alpha and HE3 beta, but not the HE3 gamma genes, are expressed in the human epididymis.