BACKGROUND: Dnmt3L, a member of the DNA methyltransferase 3 family, lacks enzymatic activity but is required for de-novo methylation of imprinted genes in oocytes and for transposon repression in male germ cells. METHODS: We used northern blots, RT-PCR, 5' rapid amplification of complementary DNA (cDNA) ends (RACE), RNase H mapping, real-time/quantitative RT-PCR and in situ hybridization to identify and characterize Dnmt3L transcripts produced during germ cell development. RESULTS: Mouse Dnmt3L uses three sex-specific promoters, not the single promoter previously thought. A promoter active in prospermatogonia drives transcription of an mRNA encoding the full-length protein in perinatal testis, where de-novo methylation occurs. Late pachytene spermatocytes activate a second promoter in intron 9 of the Dnmt3L gene. After this stage, the predominant transcripts are three truncated mRNAs, which appear to be non-coding. We could also detect similar adult testis transcripts in humans. In the mouse ovary, an oocyte-specific promoter located in an intron of the neighbouring autoimmune regulator (Aire) gene produces a transcript with the full open reading frame (ORF). This is the only Dnmt3L transcript found in growing oocytes and is absent in the oocytes of Dnmt3L-/- females. CONCLUSIONS: Sex-specific promoters control Dnmt3L expression in the mouse germ line, mirroring the situation at the Dnmt1 and Dnmt3A loci.