Single gustatory nerve fibers branch and innervate several taste buds. In turn, individual taste buds may receive innervation from numerous gustatory nerve fibers. To evaluate the pattern of sensory innervation of fungiform papilla-bearing taste buds, we used iontophoretic fluorescent injection to retrogradely label the fibers that innervate single taste papillae in the hamster. For each animal, a single taste papilla was injected through the gemmal pore with 3.3% tetramethylrhodamine dextran amine. Fungiform papillae either at the tongue tip (0.5-1.5 mm from the tip) or more posteriorly (1.5-3.0 mm from the tip) were injected. After one to seven days survival, the geniculate and trigeminal ganglia and the tongue were sectioned and examined for labeled cells and fibers, respectively. Analysis of the number and topographic distribution of geniculate cells innervating single taste papillae, shows that: (i) 15 +/- 4 (S.D.) ganglion cells converge to innervate a single fungiform taste bud; (ii) more ganglion cells innervate anterior- (range: 13-35 cells) than posterior-lying buds (range: five to 12 cells), which, in part, may be related to bud volume (microm3); and (iii) ganglion somata innervating a single taste bud are scattered widely within the geniculate ganglion. Analysis of labeled fibers in the tongue demonstrated that two to eight taste buds located within 2 mm of the injected taste bud share collateral innervation with the injected taste bud. Since all buds with labeled fibers were located in close proximity (within a 2-mm radius), widely dispersed geniculate ganglion cells converge to innervate closely spaced fungiform taste buds. Trigeminal ganglion (mandibular division) cells were also labeled in every case and, as with the geniculate ganglion, a dispersed cell body location and collateralization pattern among papillae were observed. This study shows that iontophoresis of tetramethylrhodamine dextran amine, selectively applied to individual peripheral receptor end-organs, effectively locates sensory ganglion cells in two different ganglia that project to these sites. Moreover, the marker demonstrates collateral branches of sensory afferents associated with the labeled fibers and the nearby receptor areas innervated by these collaterals. The labeling of single or clusters of receptor cells, as well as identified sensory afferents, affords future possibilities for combining this technique with immunocytochemistry to establish the relationships of innervation patterns with neurotransmitters and neurotropic substances within identified cells.