In addition to their well-known involvement in neuromuscular junctions and in brain cholinergic synapses, cholinergic mechanisms have been implicated in the growth and maturation of oocytes in various species. Functional acetylcholine receptors were electrophysiologically demonstrated in amphibian and mammalian oocyte membranes, and activity of the acetylcholine-hydrolyzing enzyme, acetylcholinesterase (AChE), was biochemically measured in the exceptionally big oocytes of the frog Xenopus laevis. However, biochemical methods could not reveal whether AChE was produced within the oocytes themselves or in the surrounding follicle cells. Furthermore, this issue is particularly important for understanding growth and fertilization processes in the much smaller human oocytes, in which the sensitivity of AChE biochemical measurements is far too low to be employed. To resolve this question, a molecular biology approach was combined with biochemical measurements on ovarian extracts and sections. To directly determine whether the human cholinesterase (ChE) genes are transcriptionally active in oocytes, and, if so, at what stages in their development, the presence of ChE mRNA was pursued. For this purpose frozen ovarian sections were subjected to in situ hybridization using35S-labeled human ChE cDNA. Highly pronounced hybridization signals were localized within oocytes in primordial, preantral, and antral follicles, but not in other ovarian cell types, demonstrating that within the human ovary ChE mRNA is selectively synthesized in viable oocytes at different developmental stages. Sucrose gradient centrifugation followed by [3H]acetylcholine hydrolysis measurements revealed in the ovarian extracts the presence of low levels of soluble AChE dimers, sensitive to the specific AChE inhibitor BW284C51 but resistant to the BuChE inhibitor iso-OMPA. In view of the low numbers of oocytes out of total cells in the ovary, these findings strongly suggest that AChE is a prominent protein in human oocytes throughout their development and further support the hypothesis that cholinergic mechanisms may be involved in oocyte growth and maturation in humans.