Background: Small nuclear ribonucleoproteins (snRNPs), which are essential components of the mRNA splicing machinery, comprise small nuclear RNAs, each complexed with a set of proteins. An early event in the maturation of snRNPs is the binding of the core proteins - the Sm proteins - to snRNAs in the cytoplasm followed by nuclear import. Immunolabelling with antibodies against Sm proteins shows that splicing snRNPs have a complex steady-state localisation within the nucleus, the result of the association of snRNPs with several distinct subnuclear structures. These include speckles, coiled bodies and nucleoli, in addition to a diffuse nucleoplasmic compartment. The reasons for snRNP accumulation in these different structures are unclear. Results: When mammalian cells were microinjected with plasmids encoding the Sm proteins B, D1 and E, each tagged with either the green fluorescent protein (GFP) or yellow-shifted GFP (YFP), a pulse of expression of the tagged proteins was observed. In each case, the newly synthesised GFP/YFP-labelled snRNPs accumulated first in coiled bodies and nucleoli, and later in nuclear speckles. Mature snRNPs localised immediately to speckles upon entering the nucleus after cell division. Conclusions: The complex nuclear localisation of splicing snRNPs results, at least in part, from a specific pathway for newly assembled snRNPs. The data demonstrate that the distribution of snRNPs between coiled bodies and speckles is directed and not random.