In the present study, a competitive polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technique was used to quantitate the relative levels of mineralocorticoid receptor (MR) and glucocorticoid receptor (GR) mRNA in microdissected nephron segments from the rat kidney and of MR mRNA from isolated principal and intercalated collecting duct cells from rabbit. RNA was isolated from cells and isolated tubules, cDNA was synthesized, and receptor cDNA was coamplified by PCR with a competitive control template. beta-Actin PCR products were also obtained from each nephron segment studied, to assess variations in RNA extraction and cDNA synthesis. MR mRNA, as determined by this competitive PCR technique, was 10-fold more abundant in cortical collecting duct (CCD), outer medullary collecting duct, and inner medullary collecting duct segments than in the proximal tubule and thick ascending limb segments (P < 0.05). Both principal and beta-intercalated cells of the CCD contained detectable levels of MR mRNA, although the levels in the principal cells were threefold higher (P < 0.01). GR mRNA was twofold more abundant in glomeruli, proximal tubule, and thick ascending limb segments than in the collecting duct segments (P < 0.05). In general, the distribution pattern of MR and GR mRNA is consistent with the distribution of adrenal corticosteroid function along the nephron.