New Zealand Obese (NZO) mice exhibit a polygenic syndrome of hyperphagia, obesity, hyperinsulinemia, and hyperglycemia similar to that observed in young diabetes mutant mice on the C57BLKS/J background (C57BLKS/J-Lepr(db)/Lepr(db)). Here we show that in NZO this syndrome is accompanied by a marked elevation of the leptin protein in adipose tissue and serum. The promoter region and the complementary DNA of the ob gene of NZO mice, including its 5'-untranslated region, are identical with the wild-type sequence (C57BL, BALB/c), except that the transcription start is located 5 bp upstream of the reported site. In contrast to C57BLKS/J+/+ and C57BL/6J-Lep(ob)/Lep(ob) mice, NZO mice failed to respond to recombinant leptin (7.2 microg/g) with a reduction of food intake. Leptin receptor messenger RNA as detected by PCR appears as abundant in hypothalamic tissue of NZO mice as in tissue from lean mice. Ten nucleotide polymorphisms are found in the complementary DNA of the leptin receptor, resulting in two conservative substitutions (V541I and V651I) in the extracellular part of the receptor and one nonconservative substitution (T1044I) in the intracellular domain between the presumed Jak and STAT binding boxes. However, these mutations are also present in the related lean New Zealand Black strain (body fat at 9 weeks: New Zealand Black, 6.2 +/- 1.3%; NZO, 17.0 +/- 1.7%). Thus, the polymorphic leptin receptor seems to play only a minor, if any, role in the obesity and hyperleptinemia of the NZO mouse. It is suggested that the main defect in NZO is located distal from the leptin receptor or at the level of leptin transport into the central nervous system.