Recent molecular cloning studies have identified several genes encoding alpha and beta subunits of the nicotinic acetylcholine receptor. These genes have distinct, although overlapping, patterns of expression in the brain and peripheral ganglia. Multiple nicotinic receptors with distinct pharmacological and functional properties can be made in oocytes by pairwise combination of different alpha-type subunits with different beta-type subunits. Both alpha and beta subunits contribute to the pharmacological and functional diversity. Evan Deneris and colleagues explain how oocyte expression studies, in concert with immunological and electrophysiological analysis in vivo, are beginning to reveal the subunit compositions of different neuronal nicotinic receptor subtypes.