The gene product of the recently cloned mouse obese gene (ob) is important in regulating adipose tissue mass. ob RNA is expressed specifically by mouse adipocytes in vivo in each of several different fat cell depots, including brown fat. ob RNA is also expressed in cultured 3T3-442A preadipocyte cells that have been induced to differentiate. Mice with lesions of the hypothalamus, as well as mice mutant at the db locus, express a 20-fold higher level of ob RNA in adipose tissue. These data suggest that both the db gene and the hypothalamus are downstream of the ob gene in the pathway that regulates adipose tissue mass and are consistent with previous experiments suggesting that the db locus encodes the ob receptor. In db/db and lesioned mice, quantitative differences in expression level of ob RNA correlated with adipocyte lipid content. The molecules that regulate expression level of the ob gene in adipocytes probably are important in determining body weight, as are the molecules that mediate the effects of ob at its site of action.