To clarify the role of Ret signaling components in enteric nervous system (ENS) development, we evaluated ENS anatomy and intestinal contractility in mice heterozygous for Ret, GFRalpha1 and Ret ligands. These analyses demonstrate that glial cell line-derived neurotrophic factor (GDNF) and neurturin are important for different aspects of ENS development. Neurturin is essential for maintaining the size of mature enteric neurons and the extent of neuronal projections, but does not influence enteric neuron number. GDNF availability determines enteric neuron number by controlling ENS precursor proliferation. However, we were unable to find evidence of programmed cell death in the wild type ENS by immunohistochemistry for activated caspase 3. In addition, enteric neuron number is normal in Bax(-/-) and Bid(-/-) mice, suggesting that, in contrast to most of the rest of the nervous system, programmed cell death is not important for determining enteric neuron numbers. Only mild reductions in neuron size and neuronal fiber counts occur in Ret(+/-) and Gfra1(+/-) mice. All of these heterozygous mice, however, have striking problems with intestinal contractility and neurotransmitter release, demonstrating that Ret signaling is critical for both ENS structure and function.