Hilar mossy cells of the mouse were shown recently to display calretinin immunoreactivity (Liu et al.  Exp Brain Res 108:389-403). The morphological and connectional characteristics of these cells are poorly understood. In the present study, we used immunohistochemical, electron microscopic, and neuronal tracing techniques to describe their distribution, morphology, and connectivity. The distribution of calretinin-immunoreactive mossy cells varied significantly along the dorsoventral axis of the hilus. At dorsal levels, calretinin immunoreactivity was limited largely to a subpopulation of interneurons. At mid-dorsoventral and ventral levels, however, most if not all mossy cells displayed calretinin immunoreactivity. We found that most hilar mossy cells are calretinin immunoreactive but lack gamma-aminobutyric acid, as demonstrated by postembedding immunostaining of alternate semithin sections. Calretinin-immunoreactive mossy cells typically had two to three thick dendrites covered with complex spines (thorny excrescences). Electron microscopy revealed that these spines received multiple asymmetric contacts from mossy fibres. Axons arising from these cells formed a strong belt of calretinin immunoreactivity restricted to the inner third of the dentate molecular layer. This immunoreactivity was equally dense throughout the dorsoventral length of the dentate gyrus, suggesting that axons of calretinin-immunoreactive mossy cells located in the ventral levels diverge greatly and are capable of innervating distant regions of the dentate gyrus. Ultrastructural examination showed that calretinin-immunoreactive boutons made asymmetric synaptic contacts primarily on spines and, occasionally, on dendritic shafts of granule cells and accounted for the majority of asymmetrical synapses in the inner molecular layer. Injections of the retrograde tracer wheatgerm agglutinin-gold into the dentate gyrus demonstrated that calretinin-immunoreactive mossy cells concentrated in the ventral hilus project massively to both the dorsal and ventral aspect of the contralateral dentate gyrus. A small proportion of retrogradely labelled cells showed immunoreactivity for neuropeptide Y or somatostatin. If mossy cells of the ventral hilus receive the majority of their input from ventral granule cells, one may expect ventral granule cells to be more efficient in recruiting large numbers of granule cells during synchronous activity patterns than dorsal granule cells. Spontaneous activity originating from granule cells in the ventral dentate gyrus can be propagated throughout the dorsoventral length of the dentate gyrus bilaterally via the dorsoventrally divergent and contralaterally projecting axons of the mossy cells. This organization may explain why the ventral dentate gyrus is frequently involved in pathological phenomena.