1. Opioid peptides are a family of structurally related neuromodulators which play a major role in the control of nociceptive pathways. These peptides act through membrane receptors of the nervous system, defined as mu, delta and kappa and endowed with overlapping but distinct pharmacological, anatomical and functional properties. 2. Recent cloning of an opioid receptor gene family has opened the way to the use of recombinant DNA technology at the receptor level. 3. This review focuses on the molecular cloning and functional characterization of opioid receptors and provides first insights into molecular aspects of opioid peptide recognition and signal transduction mechanisms, using the cloned receptors as investigation tools.