CNTF (ciliary neurotrophic factor), purified from rabbit sciatic nerves by a relatively simple procedure, is bioactive in tissue culture at low picomolar concentration and appears as a doublet on polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis (PAGE). In these nerves, CNTF accounts for more than one-half of the survival-promoting activity on ciliary neurons. The concentration of CNTF in rabbit sciatic nerves is estimated to be 5 nmol/kg, more than 1000 times higher than would seem to be required to support neurons if the neurotrophic factor were homogeneously distributed. With recombinant DNA technology, rat CNTF has been synthesized in Escherichia coli, purified without denaturating agents, and found to be bioactive at a slightly lower concentration than CNTF extracted from rabbit sciatic nerves. After radioiodination, CNTF retains biological activity but is not specifically internalized and retrogradely transported in motor and sensory axons. In peripheral nerves, ciliary neurotrophic factor differs biologically from nerve growth factor (NGF) by its much higher tissue concentration and apparent lack of internalization by peripheral nerve axons.