Homology cloning and, more recently, the sequencing of whole genomes, have identified many open reading frames encoding proteins of unknown function, in particular putative G protein-coupled membrane receptors. Identification of orphan receptors in this way has marked the advent of 'reverse pharmacology' to identify the corresponding physiological ligands. This approach has led to the discovery of the ORL1 (Opioid Receptor-Like 1) receptor, and of its natural ligand, nociceptin/orphanin FQ (noc/oFQ), the basic components of a new peptide-based signalling pathway in the nervous system. Based on genetic criteria, the ORL1 and opioid receptors belong to the same family, as do noc/oFQ and opioid peptides. The marked structural analogy between the ORLI and opioid receptors, especially the kappa-opioid receptor, and the noc/oFQ and opioid peptides, particularly dynorphin A, is not reflected anatomically since noc/oFQ and opioid peptides appear to be located in separate neuronal circuits. Noc/oFQ triggers the same G protein-mediated signalling pathways as do opioids, however, to produce pharmacological effects that sometimes differ from, and even oppose, those of opioids. Noc/oFQ stimulates an outward K+ current and/or inhibits voltage-gated Ca2+ channels, thereby reducing synaptic efficacy, i.e. neuronal activity. In the rat, noc/oFQ is endowed with supraspinal pronociceptive/anti-opioid properties (it suppresses opioid-mediated analgesia), while convergent electrophysiological and behavioural data indicate that the peptide is a spinal analgesic. Noc/oFQ has not yet been found to precipitate withdrawal in morphine-tolerant rats. Nor does it elicit motivational effects, suggesting it lacks abuse liability. Also, by acting supraspinally, noc/oFQ impairs motor performance, suppresses spatial learning, induces feeding, and regulates basal and stress-induced release of pituitary hormones. Noc/oFQ is also active when administered intravenously, exhibiting potent smooth muscle relaxant, diuretic, and antinatriuretic properties. Last but not least, noc/oFQ appears to regulate stimulated immune function, and to be involved in neuronal differentiation. The discovery of noc/oFQ, a neuropeptide with multiple functions, will certainly improve our knowledge of brain physiology, and may find therapeutic applications, for example in the management of pain or hyponatremic and water-retaining diseases. However, given the wide distribution of noc/oFQ and its receptor, the pharmacological profile of noc/oFQ is likely to be incomplete, and other as yet unknown functions of the peptide remain to be discovered. Most helpful in this respect will be the identification of new ligands of the ORL1 receptor, particularly antagonists. If research on noc/oFQ carries on unabated at the present pace, potentially clinically interesting new compounds could become available in the not too distant future.