An HLA-E-specific oligonucleotide probe was used to study the expression of HLA-E. This probe detects two HLA-E transcripts, 1.8 and 2.7 kb in size, which are present in varying ratios in all tissues and cell lines investigated. We demonstrate that alternative poly(A) site usage accounts for the differential regulation of the two HLA-E mRNA species. Sequence analysis of three cDNA clones, representing the two transcripts of HLA-E, and of an HLA-E gene encoded by cosmid cd3.14, revealed identity of gene and cDNA in the 3' untranslated region. S1 nuclease protection assays confirmed that the two HLA-E transcripts are not alternative splicing products. Introduction of cd3.14, together with human beta 2 m into the murine myeloma cell line P3X63-Ag8.653, resulted in a cell surface expression of an HLA-class I heavy chain detectable by indirect immunofluorescence whereas transfection into the human beta 2m expressing mouse L cell line, J27 was negative with regard to cell surface expression. Cell surface labeling of transfectants and immunoprecipitation with a monomorphic HLA class I-specific antibody or an antibody against human beta 2m confirmed the presence of an HLA-E H chain on the cell surface. These results indicate that the HLA-E gene codes for a class I H chain that can be expressed on the cell surface.