We examined the level of expression of small RNA transcripts hybridizing to a rodent repetitive DNA element, the identifier (ID) sequence, in a variety of cell types in vivo and in cultured mammalian cells. A 160-nucleotide (160n) cytoplasmic poly(A)+ RNA (BC1) appeared in late embryonic and early postnatal rat brain development, was enriched in the cerebral cortex, and appeared to be restricted to neural tissue and the anterior pituitary gland. A 110n RNA (BC2) was specifically enriched in brain, especially the postnatal cortex, but was detectable at low levels in peripheral tissues. A third, related 75n poly(A)- RNA (T3) was found in rat brain and at lower levels in peripheral tissues but was very abundant in the testes. The BC RNAs were found in a variety of rat cell lines, and their level of expression was dependent upon cell culture conditions. A rat ID probe detected BC-like RNAs in mouse brain but not liver and detected a 200n RNA in monkey brain but not liver at lower hybridization stringencies. These RNAs were expressed by mouse and primate cell lines. Thus, tissue-specific expression of small ID-sequence-related transcripts is conserved among mammals, but the tight regulation found in vivo is lost by cells in culture.