Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) undergo spectacular marine migrations before homing to spawn in natal rivers. However, males that grow fastest early in life can adopt an alternative 'sneaker' tactic by maturing earlier at greatly reduced size without leaving freshwater. While the ultimate evolutionary causes have been well studied, virtually nothing is known about the molecular bases of this developmental plasticity. We investigate the nature and extent of coordinated molecular changes that accompany such a fundamental transformation by comparing the brain transcription profiles of wild mature sneaker males to age-matched immature males (future large anadromous males) and immature females. Of the ca. 3000 genes surveyed, 15% are differentially expressed in the brains of the two male types. These genes are involved in a wide range of processes, including growth, reproduction and neural plasticity. Interestingly, despite the potential for wide variation in gene expression profiles among individuals sampled in nature, consistent patterns of gene expression were found for individuals of the same reproductive tactic. Notably, gene expression patterns in immature males were different both from immature females and sneakers, indicating that delayed maturation and sea migration by immature males, the 'default' life cycle, may actually result from an active inhibition of development into a sneaker. ?? 2005 The Royal Society.