Background: MicroRNAs (miRNAs) are important regulators of gene expression and have been implicated in development, differentiation and pathogenesis. Hundreds of miRNAs have been discovered in mammalian genomes. Approximately 50% of mammalian miRNAs are expressed from introns of protein-coding genes; the primary transcript (pri-miRNA) is therefore assumed to be the host transcript. However, very little is known about the structure of pri-miRNAs expressed from intergenic regions. Here we annotate transcript boundaries of miRNAs in human, mouse and rat genomes using various transcription features. The 5′ end of the pri-miRNA is predicted from transcription start sites, CpG islands and 5′ CAGE tags mapped in the upstream flanking region surrounding the precursor miRNA (pre-miRNA). The 3′ end of the pri-miRNA is predicted based on the mapping of polyA signals, and supported by cDNA/EST and ditags data. The predicted pri-miRNAs are also analyzed for promoter and insulator-associated regulatory regions. Results: We define sets of conserved and non-conserved human, mouse and rat pre-miRNAs using bidirectional BLAST and synteny analysis. Transcription features in their flanking regions are used to demarcate the 5′ and 3′ boundaries of the pri-miRNAs. The lengths and boundaries of primary transcripts are highly conserved between orthologous miRNAs. A significant fraction of pri-miRNAs have lengths between 1 and 10 kb, with very few introns. We annotate a total of 59 pri-miRNA structures, which include 82 pre-miRNAs. 36 pri-miRNAs are conserved in all 3 species. In total, 18 of the confidently annotated transcripts express more than one pre-miRNA. The upstream regions of 54% of the predicted pri-miRNAs are found to be associated with promoter and insulator regulatory sequences. Conclusion: Little is known about the primary transcripts of intergenic miRNAs. Using comparative data, we are able to identify the boundaries of a significant proportion of human, mouse and rat pri-miRNAs. We confidently predict the transcripts including a total of 77, 58 and 47 human, mouse and rat pre-miRNAs respectively. Our computational annotations provide a basis for subsequent experimental validation of predicted pri-miRNAs. © 2008 Saini et al; licensee BioMed Central Ltd.