Although glutamate is thought to be the neurotransmitter at the invertebrate neuromuscular junction, acetylcholine is accepted as the primary neurotransmitter of the vertebrate motoneurons. N-acetylaspartylglutamate, a dipeptide localized in putative glutamatergic neurons in brain, is also found in high concentrations (> mM) in mammalian motoneurons and the ventral roots of spinal cord. N-acetylaspartylglutamate, which is released from neurons by depolarization in a Ca(2+)-dependent fashion, is implicated in glutamatergic transmission in two ways: it is a partial agonist at NMDA receptors, and it is cleaved to yield extracellular glutamate and N-acetylasparate by the specific peptidase N-acetylated alpha-linked acidic dipeptidase. Given the localization of N-acetylaspartylglutamate in motor neuronal perikarya and axons, we wondered whether N-acetylaspartylglutamate or glutamate cleaved from N-acetylaspartylglutamate by N-acetylated alpha-linked acidic dipeptidase may also play a role in neuromuscular transmission. Here we describe the immunocytochemical detection at the rat neuromuscular junction of N-acetylaspartylglutamate in terminals of motoneurons, of N-acetylated alpha-linked acidic dipeptidase in perisynaptic Schwann cells, and of the NMDAR-1 glutamate receptor subunit on postsynaptic muscle membranes. These results point to a potential role for N-acetylaspartylglutamate at the rat neuromuscular junction. Further, this is the first demonstration of a glutamate receptor protein at vertebrate neuromuscular synapses. Together with other recent findings, our results suggest that glutamate-like molecules are involved in neuromuscular transmission not only in invertebrates but also in veretebrates where they may modulate signaling by acetylcholine.