The survival motor neuron (SMN) gene is the putative disease gene for human spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), an autosomal recessive disorder characterized by progressive degeneration of lower motor neurons. Two copies of the gene, centromeric and telomeric, are present in the same 5q13 chromosomal region in humans. However, only the telomeric gene is affected in SMA. The SMN gene(s) encode(s) a novel protein of unknown function. To gain insights into the role of SMN in neurons, we have identified the SMN gene ortholog in the rat, and investigated SMN expression in the CNS of rat, monkey and humans by immunocytochemistry and in situ hybridization experiments. Antibodies against the SMN amino-terminus specifically recognized a single protein identical to the in vitro translation products of human and rat SMN cDNAs. The SMN gene transcript and product were widely but unevenly expressed throughout cerebral and spinal cord areas. The SMN protein was localized mainly in the cytoplasm of specific neuronal systems, and it was particularly expressed in lower motor neurons of newborn and adult animals. Likewise, a strong hybridization signal was detected in lamina IX of the spinal ventral horn. These results support the relevance of SMN for the motor neuron function and the pathogenetic role of the SMN gene in the neuronal degeneration associated with SMA.