Using a combination of in vitro methodology, including cell-free translation, two-dimensional peptide mapping and recombinant DNA techniques, the structure of the precursors of the hypothalamic nonapeptide hormones vasopressin and oxytocin has been elucidated. Both hormone precursors are model cellular polyproteins in that they comprise several different entities within the same polypeptide molecule. In each precursor, the nonapeptide hormone follows immediately the signal peptide and is, in turn, attached to its respective carrier neurophysin. The vasopressin precursor also includes a pituitary glycoprotein at its C-terminus. The posttranslational processing of the precursors to set free the nonapeptide hormones is thus a critical regulatory step, which can in part be simulated in the quasi in vivo system of the Xenopus laevis oocyte. The preprohormones to vasopressin and oxytocin illustrate well the convenience of the in vitro experimental approach in understanding the function of the peptidergic neuron.