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A complementary DNA encoding the key subunit of the human N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptor (NMDAR1) has been cloned using a probe derived from the rat NMDAR1 cDNA. The cDNA encodes a 938-amino acid protein, which shows 99% amino acid homology with the rat counterpart. Of the 7 of 938 amino acids which are different, three occur in the region of the signal peptide and the others in the extracellular amino-terminal domain preceding the 4 putative transmembrane segments. Expression in Xenopus oocytes demonstrated that the single protein encoded by the cloned cDNA possesses the electrophysiological and pharmacological properties characteristic of the NMDA receptor, including Ca2+ permeability, voltage-dependent Mg2+ block, and inhibition by selective antagonists such as Zn2+ and channel blockers. The high evolutionary conservation in the structure and properties of NMDAR1 argues strongly for the importance of this receptor in functions of glutamate neurotransmission. RNA blot analysis showed abundant expression of mRNA whose size is about 4.5 and 4.8 kilonucleotides. The human gene encoding the NMDAR1 subunit has been mapped to chromosome 9q34.3 by the analyses of blot hybridization of a DNA panel of human/hamster somatic cell hybrids and fluorescence in situ hybridization of human chromosomes.