Using a reverse transcription-coupled PCR, we demonstrated that both brain and spleen type cannabinoid receptor (CB1-R and CB2-R, respectively) mRNAs are expressed in the preimplantation mouse embryo. The CB1-R mRNA expression was coincident with the activation of the embryonic genome late in the two-cell stage, whereas the CB2-R mRNA was present from the one-cell through the blastocyst stages. The major psychoactive component of marijuana (-)-delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol [(-)-THC] inhibited forskolin-stimulated cAMP generation in the blastocyst, and this inhibition was prevented by pertussis toxin. However, the inactive cannabinoid cannabidiol (CBD) failed to influence this response. These results suggest that cannabinoid receptors in the embryo are coupled to inhibitory guanine nucleotide binding proteins. Further, the oviduct and uterus exhibited the enzymatic capacity to synthesize the putative endogenous cannabinoid ligand arachidonylethanolamide (anandamide). Synthetic and natural cannabinoid agonists [WIN 55,212-2, CP 55,940, (-)-THC, and anandamide], but not CBD or arachidonic acid, arrested the development of two-cell embryos primarily between the four-cell and eight-cell stages in vitro in a dose-dependent manner. Anandamide also interfered with the development of eight-cell embryos to blastocysts in culture. The autoradiographic studies readily detected binding of [3H]anandamide in embryos at all stages of development. Positive signals were present in one-cell embryos and all blastomeres of two-cell through four-cell embryos. However, most of the binding sites in eight-cell embryos and morulae were present in the outer cells. In the blastocyst, these signals were primarily localized in the mural trophectoderm with low levels of signals in the polar trophectoderm, while little or no signals were noted in inner cell mass cells.These results establish that the preimplantation mouse embryo is a target for cannabinoid ligands. Consequently, many of the adverse effects of cannabinoids observed during pregnancy could be mediated via these cannabinoid receptors. Although the physiological significance of the cannabinoid ligand-receptor signaling in normal preimplantation embryo development is not yet clear, the regulation of embryonic cAMP and/or Ca2+ levels via this signaling pathway may be important for normal embryonic development and/or implantation.