Using a sensitive Northern blot hybridization technique, gene expression of superoxide dismutase (SOD), catalase, and glutathione peroxidase was studied in pancreatic islets and for comparison in various other mouse tissues (liver, kidney, brain, lung, skeletal muscle, heart muscle, adrenal gland, and pituitary gland). Gene expression of the antioxidant enzymes was usually in the range of +/- 50% of that in the liver. Only in pancreatic islets gene expression was substantially lower. The levels of the cytoplasmic Cu/Zn SOD and the mitochondrial Mn SOD gene expression were in the range of 30-40% of those in the liver. Glutathione peroxidase gene expression was 15%, and catalase gene expression was not at all detectable in pancreatic islets. These low levels of antioxidant enzyme gene expression may provide an explanation for the extraordinary sensitivity of pancreatic beta cells towards cytotoxic damage by diabetogenic compounds and during the development of human and animal diabetes.