The localization of CD15 (synonyms: stage-specific embryonic antigen-1 (SSEA-1), 3(alpha)-fucosyl-N-acetyl-lactosamine or FAL), which is implicated in neuronal differentiation, in the developing dorsal rat spinal cord was studied by immunocytochemistry. A embryonal day 9 (E9), SSEA-1 was detected in the neural ectoderm and, at E11, in cells near the ventricle of the matrix layer. This localization indicated that SSEA-1 is present in proliferating premigratory cells of the rat spinal cord. Between E12 and E16, cells of the alar plate expressed SSEA-1. Expression of the antigen was restricted to neuroblasts that will form the dorsal horn. SSEA-1, therefore, can be used at this stage as a marker for a subdivision of the matrix layer. At E14, the dorsal root entrance zone showed SSEA-1. This indicated that SSEA-1 is associated with ingrowing primary afferents. From E16 on, SSEA-1 was present in the dorsal raphe, which suggested a function for SSEA-1 in the guidance of developing fibres. After E17, the antigen was also found within the dorsal mantle layer. SSEA-1 was first present in Rexed's laminae II, IV and V. Later on in development the antigen was detected only in Rexed's laminae II (substantia gelatinosa). These distribution patterns indicated that SSEA-1 is present on migratory and/or postmigratory cells. In addition, SSEA-1 is associated with small-diameter dorsal root fibres, the C fibres and A(sigma) fibres, that terminate within the substantia gelatinosa. After birth, SSEA-1 was present throughout the dorsal horn, probably as a result of the myelination of the fibres.