Numerous studies of the proliferative effects of basic fibroblast growth factor (bFGF) in culture, including neonatal and adult hippocampal precursors, suggest that the factor plays a ubiquitous and life-long role in neurogenesis. In contrast, in vivo, bFGF is devoid of effects on neurons in mature hippocampus, raising the possibility that bFGF exhibits developmental stage-specific activity in the complex animal environment. To define neurogenetic effects in the newborn, a single subcutaneous injection of bFGF (20 ng/gm) was administered to postnatal day 1 (P1) rats, and hippocampal DNA content was quantified: bFGF elicited an increase in total DNA throughout adulthood, by 48% at P4, 25% at P22, and 17% at P180, suggesting that bFGF increases hippocampal cell number. To define mechanisms, bromodeoxyuridine (BrdU) was injected at P1 and mitotically labelled cells were assessed at P22: there was a twofold increase in BrdU-positive cells in the dentate granule cell layer (GCL), indicating that bFGF enhanced the generation of neurons, or neuronogenesis, from a cohort of precursors. Moreover, enhanced mitosis and survival led to a 33% increase in absolute GCL neuron number, suggesting that neuron production depends on environmental levels of bFGF. To evaluate this possibility, bFGF-knockout mice were analyzed: hippocampal DNA content was decreased at all ages examined (P3, -42%; P21, -28%; P360, -18%), and total GCL neuron and glial fibrillary acidic protein (GFAP)-positive cell number were decreased by 30%, indicating that bFGF is necessary for normal hippocampal neurogenesis. We conclude that environmental levels of bFGF regulate neonatal hippocampal neurogenesis. As adult hippocampal neuronogenesis was unresponsive to bFGF manipulation in our previous study [Wagner, J.P., Black, I.B. & DiCicco-Bloom, E. (1999) J. Neurosci., 19, 6006], these observations suggest distinct, stage-specific roles of bFGF in the dentate gyrus granule cell lineage.