Cellular interactions in a variety of vertebrate non-neural tissues are thought to be mediated by cell surface carbohydrate structures. The detection of cell-specific surface carbohydrates and carbohydrate- binding proteins within the embryonic nervous system has raised the possibility that carbohydrate recognition may also contribute to the interactions of developing neurons. Soluble lactose-binding lectins constitute one class of carbohydrate-binding proteins expressed in the vertebrate nervous system. We describe here the isolation of cDNAs from rat brain libraries encoding one of these lectins, RL-14.5, and demonstrate that this protein is not only homologous to other soluble lectins, but also identical in primary sequence to a lectin present in at least one non-neural tissue. RNA blot analysis and in situ hybridization reveal a restricted pattern of expression of RL-14.5 mRNA within the rat nervous system. High levels of RL-14.5 mRNA are present in primary sensory neurons and motoneurons in the spinal cord and brain stem. Moreover, expression of RL-14.5 mRNA in sensory and motoneurons is detectable soon after neuronal differentiation. These findings, together with previous studies demonstrating the selective expression of oligosaccharide ligands for RL-14.5 on the same neurons, are consistent with the idea that carbohydrate-mediated interactions contribute to the development of this subset of mammalian neurons.