The locations of three cleavages that can occur in mouse 45S pre-rRNA were determined by Northern blot hybridization and S1 nuclease mapping techniques. These experiments indicate that an initial cleavage of 45S pre-rRNA can directly generate the mature 5'terminus of 18S rRNA. Initial cleavage of 45S pre-rRNA can also generate the mature 5' terminus of 5.8S rRNA, but in this case cleavage can occur at two different locations, one at the known 5'terminus of 5.8S rRNA and another 6 or 7 nucleotides upstream. This pattern of cleavage results in the formation of cytoplasmic 5.8S rRNA with heterogeneous 5'termini. Further, our results indicate that one pathway for the formation of the mature 5'terminus of 28S rRNA involves initial cleavages within spacer sequences followed by cleavages which generate the mature 5'terminus of 28S rRNA. Comparison of these different patterns of cleavage for mouse pre-rRNA with that for Escherichia coli pre-rRNA implies that there are fundamental differences in the two processing mechanisms. Further, several possible cleavage signals have been identified by comparing the cleavage sites with the primary and secondary structure of mouse rRNA.