Retrotransposons, transposable elements related to animal retroviruses, are found in all eukaryotes investigated and make up the majority of many plant genomes. Their ubiquity points to their importance, especially in their contribution to the large-scale structure of complex genomes. The nature and frequency of retro-element appearance, activation and amplification are poorly understood in all higher eukaryotes. Here we employ a novel approach to determine the insertion dates for 17 of 23 retrotransposons found near the maize adh1 gene, and two others from unlinked sites in the maize genome, by comparison of long terminal repeat (LTR) divergences with the sequence divergence between adh1 in maize and sorghum. All retrotransposons examined have inserted within the last six million years, most in the last three million years. The structure of the adh1 region appears to be standard relative to the other gene-containing regions of the maize genome, thus suggesting that retrotransposon insertions have increased the size of the maize genome from approximately 1200 Mb to 2400 Mb in the last three million years. Furthermore, the results indicate an increased mutation rate in retrotransposons compared with genes.