Previous in vivo studies have shown that beta-alanine is incorporated specifically into the dipeptide L-carnosine (beta-alanyl-L-histidine). In the present study, we administered beta-[3H]alanine to the nasal cavity of hamsters and used biochemical analyses to identify the radioactively labeled compounds in the olfactory epithelium and olfactory bulb and autoradiography to demonstrate the localization and transport of the label in the primary afferents of the olfactory system. The olfactory epithelium and lamina propria were labeled intensely 6 hr after intranasal beta-[3H]alanine administration. At this survival time, 61% of the radioactivity in the olfactory epithelium was present in the carnosine fraction, while 37% of the label remained in the beta-alanine fraction. After 24-hr and 4-day survival periods, greater than 82% of the radioactivity was present in the carnosine fraction, and the olfactory receptors and bundles of axons were labeled preferentially. The olfactory nerve and glomerular layers of the main olfactory bulb were labeled intensely at 6 and 24 hr after beta-[3H]alanine administration; much less label was present in these layers at 4 days survival. At all three of these survival times, greater than 84% of the radioactivity in the olfactory bulb was present in the carnosine fraction. No label was present in the olfactory epithelium or bulb 18 days after beta-[3H]alanine administration. While the autoradiographic labeling over the structures of the accessory olfactory system was consistently less intense than that over the main olfactory system structures, the patterns of labeling were similar over the four survival times. Intranasal alpha-[3H]alanine administration resulted in some labeling in the primary afferent fibers, but the labeling did not have the specificity nor the same time course over the four survival times that was observed after beta-[3H]alanine administration. The results are consistent with the hypothesis that carnosine is a neurotransmitter or neuromodulator in the olfactory neurons. The results also suggest that carnosine may play a similar role in the vomeronasal neurons.