The ciliary epithelium (CE) in the adult mammalian eye harbors a mitotic quiescent population of neural stem cells. Here we have compared the cellular and molecular properties of CE stem cells and populations of retinal progenitors that define the early and late stages of histogenesis. The CE stem cells and retinal progenitors proliferate in the presence of mitogens and share the expression of universal neural and retinal progenitor markers. However, the expression of the majority of retinal progenitor markers (e.g., Chx10) is transient in the former when compared to the latter, in vitro. They are similar to early than late retinal progenitors in their proliferative response to FGF2 and/or EGF. Analysis of the differentiation potential of CE stem cells shows that they are capable of generating both early (e.g., retinal ganglion cells) and late (e.g., rod photoreceptors) born retinal neurons. However, under identical differentiation conditions, i.e., in the presence of 1% FBS, they generate more early-born retinal neurons than late-born retinal neurons showing a preference for generating early retinal neurons. Transcription profiling of these cells and retinal progenitors demonstrate that they share approximately 80% of the expressed genes. The CE stem cells have more unique genes in common with early retinal progenitors than late retinal progenitors. Both proliferative/differential potential and transcription profiles suggest that CE stem cells may be a residual population of stem cells of optic neuroepithelium, representing a stage antecedent to retinal progenitors.