Proenkephalin (PENK) messenger RNA was reported to be present in bone marrow mononuclear cells (BMMC) and spleen mononuclear cells (SMC). Nevertheless, the pattern of PENK products in normal cells of the rat immune system, which is important for defining the physiological role of PENK gene expression, has not been well established. In this work we have characterized the processing of the opioid portion (met-enkephalin-containing peptides) and nonopioid portion (synenkephalin-derived peptides) of PENK in rat BMMC and SMC. Met-enkephalin-containing peptides were detected in mononuclear cells of both hematopoietic tissues. In BMMC, free immunoreactive (IR)-met-enkephalin corresponded only to the 15% of total met-enkephalin-IR, whereas in SMC it represented the 66.5%. Gel filtration chromatography showed that BMMC contained partially processed PENK-derived peptides of high and intermediate molecular weight, whereas SMC displayed fully processed products containing met-enkephalin and/or the carboxyterminal portion of synenkephalin. HPLC purification of low molecular weight products showed that free IR-met-enkephalin in SMC mainly corresponded to met-enkephalin and oxidized met-enkephalin. In addition we have characterized in SMC three peptides lower than 3.0 kilodalton containing the C-terminal sequence of synenkephalin. These peptides were purified by gel filtration, affinity chromatography, ion exchange chromatography, and HPLC. These results show that PENK was processed in mononuclear cells of the primary (bone marrow) and secondary (spleen) organs of the rat hematopoietic system, as occurs in neural and endocrine tissues. Nevertheless, the precursor was cleaved only in the latter tissue to low molecular weight peptides. Furthermore we demonstrated that synenkephalin (proenkephalin 1-70) in SMC was processed to low molecular weight peptides containing the C-terminus free. This last result suggests that a dibasic Lys-Lys and monobasic (Lys) sites were cleaved.