The 3200 and 1600 nucleotide mRNAs encoding rat brain proteolipid protein (PLP), the major protein component of central nervous system myelin, are heterogeneous at their 5' ends, differ in their 3' polyadenylation sites, and are transcribed from a single gene. The mRNAs, which first appear postnatally, encode identical 277 amino acid proteins that are 99% identical to the bovine protein sequence. Thus, PLP has been highly conserved during mammalian evolution. A single amino-terminal methionine is removed post-translationally, indicating that PLP does not require a signal peptide sequence for insertion into the myelin membrane. Mouse and monkey utilize the 3200 but not the 1600 nucleotide mRNA, suggesting that there is no functional necessity for two sizes of rat PLP mRNAs.