The expression of sodium channel alpha-, beta 1- and beta 2-subunit mRNAs was examined in adult rat DRG neurons in dissociated culture at 1 day in vitro and within sections of intact ganglia by in situ hybridization and reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR). The results demonstrate that sodium channel alpha-subunit mRNAs are differentially expressed in small (< 25 microns diam), medium (25-45 microns diam.) and large (> 45 microns diam.) cultured DRG neurons at 1 day in vitro (div). Sodium channel mRNA I is expressed at higher levels in large neurons than small DRG neurons, while sodium channel mRNA II is variably expressed, with most cells lacking or exhibiting low levels of detectable signal of these mRNAs and limited numbers of neurons with moderate expression levels. DRG neurons generally exhibit negligible or low levels of hybridization signal for sodium channel mRNA III. Sodium channel mRNAs Na6 and NaG show similar patterns of expression, with most large and many medium DRG neurons exhibiting high levels of expression. The mRNA for the rat cognate of human sodium channel hNE-Na is detected in virtually every DRG neuron; most cells in all size classes exhibit moderate or high levels of hNE-Na expression. Sodium channel SNS mRNA is expressed in all size classes of DRG neurons, but shows greater expression in small and medium DRG neurons than in large neurons. The mRNA for the rat cognate of mouse sodium channel mNa 2.3 is not detected, or is detected at low levels, in most DRG neurons, regardless of size, although moderate expression is detected in some neurons. Sodium channel beta 1- and beta 2-subunit mRNAs exhibit similar expression patterns; they are detected in most DRG neurons, although the level of expression tends to be greater in large neurons than in small neurons. RT-PCR and in situ hybridization of intact adult DRG showed a similar pattern of expression of sodium channel mRNAs to that observed in DRG neurons in vitro. These results demonstrate that adult DRG neurons express multiple sodium channel mRNAs in vitro and in situ and suggest a molecular basis for the biophysical heterogeneity of sodium currents observed in these cells.