Leptin, the product of the ob gene, is a hormone secreted by adipocytes. Animals with mutations in the ob gene are obese and lose weight when given leptin, but little is known about the physiologic actions of leptin in humans. Using a newly developed radioimmunoassay, wer measured serum concentrations of leptin in 136 normal-weight subjects and 139 obese subjects (body-mass index, > or = 27.3 for men and > or = 27.8 for women; the body-mass index was defined as the weight in kilograms divided by the square of the height in meters). The measurements were repeated in seven obese subjects after weight loss and during maintenance of the lower weight. The ob messenger RNA (mRNA) content of adipocytes was determined in 27 normal-weight and 27 obese subjects. The mean (+/- SD) serum leptin concentrations were 31.3 +/- 24.1 ng per milliliter in the obese subjects and 7.5 +/- 9.3 ng per milliliter in the normal-weight subjects (P < 0.001). There was a strong positive correlation between serum leptin concentrations and the percentage of body fat (r = 0.85, P < 0.001). The ob mRNA content of adipocytes was about twice as high in the obese subjects as in the normal-weight subjects (P < 0.001) and was correlated with the percentage of body fat (r = 0.68, P < 0.001) in the 54 subjects in whom it was measured. In the seven obese subjects studied after weight loss, both serum leptin concentrations and ob mRNA content of adipocytes declined, but these measures increased again during the maintenance of the lower weight. Serum leptin concentrations are correlated with the percentage of body fat, suggesting that most obese persons are insensitive to endogenous leptin production.