The class I genes of the major histocompatibility complex (Mhc) are here investigated for the first time in a passerine bird. The great reed warbler is a rare species in Sweden with a few semi-isolated populations. Yet, we found extensive Mhc class I variation in the study population. The variable exon 3, corresponding to the alpha(2) domain, was amplified from genomic DNA with degenerated primers. Seven different genomic class I sequences were detected in a single individual. One of the sequences had a deletion leading to a shift in the reading frame, indicating that it was not a functional gene. A randomly selected clone was used as a probe for restriction fragment length polymorphism (RFLP) studies in combination with the restriction enzyme Pvu II. The RFLP pattern was complex with 21-25 RFLP fragments per individual and extensive variation. Forty-nine RFLP genotypes were detected in 55 tested individuals. To study the number of transcribed genes, we isolated 14 Mhc class I clones from a cDNA library from a single individual. We found eight different sequences of four different lengths (1.3-2.2 kilobases), suggesting there are at least four transcribed loci. The number of nonsynonymous substitutions (d(N)) in the peptide binding region of exon 3 were higher than the number of synonymous substitutions (d(S)), indicating balancing selection in this region. The number of transcribed genes and the numerous RFLP fragments found so far suggest that the great reed warbler does not have a "minimal essential Mhc" as has been suggested for the chicken.