Patients with neurofibromatosis type 1 (NF1) show an increased frequency of pheochromocytomas. The NF1 gene encodes a GTPase-activating protein that controls the activity of ras proteins in intracellular signaling. A mouse strain with a knockout mutation of Nf1, the murine counterpart of NF1, has recently been constructed. This mutation, designated Nf1(n31), has been shown to be associated with the frequent development of pheochromocytomas in heterozygous animals. Pheochromocytomas are extremely rare in wild-type mice. We have characterized the tumors to assess their relevance as a model for human pheochromocytomas. The frequency of pheochromocytomas was determined in inbred compared to outbred mice carrying the Nf1(31) mutation. Paraffin sections of pheochromocytomas from seven mice were stained immunohistochemically for the catecholamine biosynthetic enzymes, tyrosine hydroxylase (TH), and phenylethanolamine-N-methyltransferase (PNMT) to infer their profiles of catecholamine synthesis, and for chromogranin A (CGA) to infer their content of secretory granules. Cultured cells from a representative tumor were studied in vitro to assess proliferation and neuronal differentiation. Pheochromocytomas arose in approx 15% of Nf1(n31) mice with a mixed genetic background, but were absent in inbred mice. Approximately one-fourth of the tumors were bilateral. The tumors exhibited variable morphology. All included cells that appeared well differentiated and resembled normal chromaffin cells in that they expressed TH, PNMT, and CGA. Focal neuronal differentiation was also observed. In cell culture, the tumor cells ceased to proliferate and the majority underwent terminal differentiation into TH-positive cells with neuronal morphology. The phenotype of pheochromocytomas in mice with the Nf1(31) mutation resembles that of human pheochromocytomas, particularly with respect to their ability to produce epinephrine, as inferred from positive staining for PNMT. The tumors also resemble both normal and neoplastic human adrenal medulla with respect to their extensive differentiation into neuron-like cells in vitro. This change in phenotype may be related to ras activation. These neoplasms may be valuable both as models for the pathobiology of adrenal medullary neoplasia, and as a source of epinephrine-producing pheochromocytoma cell lines, for which adequate models currently do not exist.