The Rel/NF-kappaB family of transcription factors has been implicated in such diverse cellular processes as proliferation, differentiation, and apoptosis. As each of these processes occurs during post-natal mammary gland morphogenesis, the expression and activity of NF-kappaB factors in the murine mammary gland were examined. Immunohistochemical and immunoblot analyses revealed expression of the p105/p50 and RelA subunits of NF-kappaB, as well as the major inhibitor, IkappaBalpha, in the mammary epithelium during pregnancy, lactation, and involution. Electrophoretic mobility shift assay (EMSA) demonstrated that DNA-binding complexes containing p50 and RelA were abundant during pregnancy and involution, but not during lactation. Activity of an NF-kappaB-dependent luciferase reporter in transgenic mice was highest during pregnancy, decreased to near undetectable levels during lactation, and was elevated during involution. This highly regulated pattern of activity was consistent with the modulated expression of p105/p50, RelA, and IkappaBalpha.