Three distinct opioid precursors have been identified in the central nervous system of mammals: proopiomelanocortin (POMC), proenkephalin, and prodynorphin. These precursors are derived from separate genes, synthesized in distinct neurons, and yield unique sets of opioid end products. This review will discuss the general mechanisms involved in the biosynthesis of neuropeptide precursors and consider the roles of posttranscriptional and posttranslational processing mechanisms in the generation of multiple sets of end products from a single gene. In addition, techniques that can be used for isolating and characterizing neuropeptide genes, mRNAs, and end products will be reviewed. These introductory comments will serve as the framework for a discussion of the phylogeny of the opioid precursors in the major groups of non-mammalian vertebrates.