Three sialyltransferases which attach terminal sialic acids to glycoprotein sugar chains are shown to exhibit striking differential expression in seven tissues of the rat. Using cDNA probes for the Gal beta 1,4GlcNAc alpha-2,6-sialytransferase which forms a NeuAc alpha 2-6Gal beta 1-4GlcNAc sequence on N-linked sugar chains, three different sized mRNAs are detected, two of which (4.7 and 4.3 kilobases (kb] have high homology along the full length, and a third (3.6 kb, in kidney) which is missing the 5' region corresponding to 45% of the NH2-terminal coding sequence. The 4.7- and 4.3-kb mRNAs exhibit differential expression of over 50-fold with the highest levels in liver and lowest in brain and heart. Assays for enzyme activity in tissue homogenates show high correspondence to the levels of mRNA. Evidence of tissue-specific expression was also obtained for two other sialyltransferases which form the NeuAc alpha 2-3Gal beta 1-4/3GlcNAc and NeuAc alpha 2-3Gal beta 1-3GalNAc sequences on N-linked and O-linked sugar chains, respectively. Comparison of the ratios of the three enzymes in several tissues suggests that they are expressed independently. The results are discussed for their relevance to cellular control of terminal glycosylation sequences on glycoproteins and glycolipids.