Glial cell line-derived neurotrophic factor (GDNF)-dependent activation of the tyrosine kinase receptor RET is necessary for kidney and enteric neuron development, and mutations in RET are associated with human diseases. Activation of RET by GDNF has been shown to require an accessory component, GDNFR-alpha (RETL1). We report the isolation and characterization of rat and human cDNAs for a novel cell-surface associated accessory protein, RETL2, that shares 49% identity with RETL1. Both RETL1 and RETL2 can mediate GDNF dependent phosphorylation of RET, but they exhibit different patterns of expression in fetal and adult tissues. The most striking differences in expression observed were in the adult central and peripheral nervous systems. In addition, the mechanisms by which the two accessory proteins facilitate the activation of RET by GDNF are quite distinct. In vitro binding experiments with soluble forms of RET, RETL1 and RETL2 demonstrate that while RETL1 binds GDNF tightly to form a membrane-associated complex which can then interact with RET, RETL2 only forms a high affinity complex with GDNF in the presence of RET. This strong RET dependence of the binding of RETL2 to GDNF was confirmed by FACS analysis on RETL1 and RETL2 expressing cells. Together with the recent discovery of a GDNF related protein, neurturin, these data raise the possibility that RETL1 and RETL2 have distinctive roles during development and in the nervous system of the adult. RETL1 and RETL2 represent new candidate susceptibility genes and/or modifier loci for RET-associated diseases.