The enzyme ornithine decarboxylase (ODC; EC 18.104.22.168) catalyses the first and rate-limiting step in polyamine biosynthesis. Its activity is markedly increased in rapidly growing or regenerating tissue and is subject to regulation by a variety of trophic and mitogenic stimuli. ODC is therefore believed to play an essential role in the onset of cellular proliferation. In a molecular-biological approach to investigate ODC regulation upon induction by tumor promoters in rat liver we isolated an almost full-length rat ODC cDNA clone of 2.4 kb (designated pODC.E10) from a cDNA library of testosterone-induced rat kidney poly(A)+ RNA. Characterization by restriction-endonuclease mapping and sequence analysis showed strong homology to mouse ODC cDNA sequences previously published [Gupta and Coffino, J. Biol. Chem. 260 (1985) 2941-2944; Kahana and Nathans, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 82 (1985) 1673-1677; Hickok et al., Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 83 (1986) 594-598]. This homology is most pronounced in the 461-aa-spanning coding region, amounting to 94% and 97% at the DNA and protein levels, respectively. In the 423-nt 5' leader the rat-mouse homology (approx. 75%) is most pronounced in a region of about 175 nt directly upstream from the translational start site. The leader sequence also contains a perfect inverted repeat of 54 nt and ten additional upstream ATG triplets, which are all followed by nonsense codons before the initiating ATG. In the 633-nt 3' trailer region of pODC.E10 an additional polyadenylation signal is observed more than 300 nt upstream from the 3' end. Rat-mouse homology is about 80% up to this first polyadenylation signal and is considerably less thereafter. The presence of two alternate polyadenylation sites most likely accounts for the 3' size heterogeneity observed in the two ODC mRNAs of 2.1 and 2.6 kb, respectively. In rat liver both mRNAs are coordinately induced by different tumor promoters. Finally, Southern blot analysis of normal rat liver and rat hepatoma DNA revealed that rat ODC, as in other rodents, belongs to a multigene family.