BACKGROUND: Although X-linked mental retardation (XLMR) affects 2%-3% of the human population, little is known about the underlying molecular mechanisms. Recent interest in this topic led to the identification of several genes for which mutations result in the disturbance of cognitive development. RESULTS: We identified a novel gene that is interrupted by an inv(X)(p21.1;q22) in a male patient with a syndromic form of mental retardation. Molecular analysis of both breakpoint regions did not reveal an interrupted gene on Xp, but identified a novel nuclear RNA export factor (NXF) gene cluster, Xcen-NXF5-NXF2-NXF4-NXF3-Xqter, in which NXF5 is split by the breakpoint, leading to its functional nullisomy. The predicted NXF5 protein shows high similarity with the central part of the presumed mRNA nuclear export factor TAP/NXF1. Functional analysis of NXF5 demonstrates binding to RNA as well as to the RNA nuclear export-associated protein p15/NXT. In contrast to TAP/NXF1, overexpression studies localized NXF5 in the form of granules in the cell body and neurites of mature hippocampal neurons, suggesting a role in mRNA transport. The two newly identified mouse nxf homologs, nxf-a and nxf-b, which also map on X, show highest mRNA levels in the brain. CONCLUSIONS: A novel member of the nuclear RNA export factor family is absent in a male patient with a syndromic form of mental retardation. Although we did not find direct evidence for the involvement of NXF5 in MR, the gene could be involved in development, possibly through a process in mRNA metabolism in neurons.