In Xenopus laevis, the laryngeal neuromuscular synapse is the final effector for sexually differentiated song production. Females have stronger laryngeal synapses than males, and synapse strength is estrogen dependent. Estrogen-induced increases in synaptic strength require at least 3 weeks of exposure, suggesting that the hormone acts via a classical genomic mechanism involving the estrogen receptor (ER). The locus of the sex difference in synapse strength, determined using quantal analysis, is presynaptic, leading to the prediction that estrogen acts directly on vocal motor neurons. However, laryngeal motor neurons do not accumulate estrogen. Estrogen might instead affect motor neuron transmitter release via a retrograde signal from its target muscle. To test this hypothesis, we determined whether laryngeal muscle expresses ER. With RT-PCR using primers that recognize highly conserved domains of the ERalpha, mRNA products of the predicted size were amplified from laryngeal muscle as well as from other classical target tissues (forebrain and oviduct). Northern blots using a portion of the PCR product as primer revealed the same-sized band in oviduct and laryngeal muscle. Immunocytochemistry and Western blots confirmed the presence of ER protein in laryngeal muscle fibers and revealed several proteins in laryngeal muscle, brain and liver; among these was an approximately 66-kD protein - presumed to be full-length ER - that was the only one found in oviduct. Estrogen treatment of juveniles resulted in an upregulation of the 66-kD ER protein concomitant with an increase in quantal content. Taken together, these experiments strongly suggest that the ER is expressed by laryngeal muscle; this receptor could mediate estrogen-dependent changes in synaptic strength via retrograde signaling.