Previous studies from this and other laboratories demonstrated that many embryonic sensory ganglion cells in the rat transiently express the catecholamine synthesizing enzyme tyrosine hydroxylase (TH), a trait not expressed by most mature sensory neurons. We, therefore, sought to determine whether transient expression was uniquely associated with catecholaminergic traits, or, alternatively, whether embryonic ganglion cells transiently expressed peptidergic properties as well. Of the four peptides examined (somatostatin [somatotropin release inhibiting factor] (SRIF), galanin (Gal), calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP), and substance P (SP)), only SRIF was found to be transiently expressed during early stages of sensory gangliogenesis. Surprisingly, SRIF immunoreactivity was observed in virtually all cranial and spinal sensory ganglion cells on embryonic day (E) 12.5. In addition to perikaryal labeling, intense SRIF immunoreactivity was also observed in the central and peripheral processes of E12.5 sensory neurons, suggesting the peptide may be released from nerve endings. The time course of SRIF appearance in cranial ganglion cells paralleled that previously described for TH, and double-labeling studies revealed extensive co-localization of these two phenotypes. By E16.5, however, the number of neurons expressing SRIF had diminished markedly, indicating that SRIF is only transiently expressed by most sensory neurons during early stages of ganglion development. An unexpected finding was that transient expression of SRIF is also a prominent feature of sympathetic ganglion cells; however, the temporal pattern of staining in the sympathetic and sensory ganglia differed substantially. Whereas virtually no SRIF staining was observed in E12.5 sympathetics, the vast majority of cells in the E16.5 superior cervical ganglion (SCG) were labeled. This contrasted sharply with the adult SCG, in which only low levels of SRIF expression were found. These findings demonstrate that SRIF peptide is transiently expressed at high levels in peripheral sensory and sympathetic neurons during embryogenesis. The time course and widespread distribution of SRIF expression indicates that the peptide may play a role in early stages of ganglion cell growth and development. Moreover, these data, in conjunction with previous studies demonstrating SRIF immunoreactivity in developing central neurons, suggest that transient expression of this peptide is a common property of diverse neuronal cell types.