Calcineurin (CN), a Ca2+/calmodulin-regulated phosphatase 2B, plays an important role in many biological processes including T-cell signal transduction. In the present study, the distribution and activity of CN were investigated in rat tissues. CN has a wide tissue distribution, as measured by enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay. CN concentrations are 0.2-0.6 micrograms/mg protein in most tissues, while the brain contains 3-10-fold higher concentrations. Immunohistochemical analyses using a monoclonal antibody to CN B subunit reveals that CN is not evenly distributed but concentrated in specific cells, especially in the brain, kidneys and testis. The specific enzymic activity of CN in tissues is around 10 pmol.min.mg protein-1, except in brain and liver (60 pmol.min-1.mg protein-1 compared to 3.6 pmol.min-1.mg protein-1). The immunosuppressants cyclosporin A and tacrolimus, but not rapamycin, inhibit the phosphatase activity of CN derived from most tissues tested, while CN activity from liver was resistant to cyclosporin A. Furthermore, transcripts and protein of the common CN B subunit and of the testis-specific form of CN B subunit were analyzed. The common CN B subunit transcripts and protein are detected in all tissues. Transcripts for the 'testis-specific' CN B subunit are also found in brain, lung, thymus and heart, while the protein is only detected in testis. This indicates that the testis-specific CN B subunit gene expression is regulated at both transcriptional and posttranscriptional levels. The findings demonstrate that CN is a widely distributed protein phosphatase and that its activity is regulated in a tissue-specific manner.