The single copy mouse opsin gene produces five major transcripts, varying in size from 1.7 to 5.1 kilobases. The mRNAs are present at levels that vary over 2 orders of magnitude and can be detected as early as postnatal day 1. Each of the transcripts is polyadenylated and can be identified in polysome-bound RNA, suggesting that each is translated in vivo. To elucidate the molecular basis of this complex transcription pattern, we have characterized genomic fragments covering the entire mouse opsin gene, including several kilobases of 5'- and 3'-flanking regions. Transcription initiates at a single site 97 base pairs upstream of the translation start codon. Northern hybridization with exon- and intron-specific probes demonstrated that the various transcripts are not generated by partial or alternative splicing. Sequence analysis of the 3' end of the gene showed the presence of multiple polyadenylation signals. Analysis by polymerase chain reaction of the 3' end of opsin cDNA demonstrated that the complex transcription pattern originated from the selective use of these polyadenylation sites, generating transcripts that differ only in the length of the 3'-untranslated region. Transcript heterogeneity similar to that observed in mouse was also found in rat and, to a lesser degree, in human and frog opsin mRNAs.