Developing embryos are more vulnerable than adults to acute cholinergic intoxication by anticholinesterases, including organophosphorus pesticides. These agents affect the process of neural development itself, leading to permanent deficits in the architecture of the nervous system. Recent evidence on direct roles of acetylcholinesterase (AChE) on neuronal differentiation provides additional grounds for investigating the developmental toxicity of anticholinesterases. Therefore, the effect of the organophosphate diazinon on the development of chick retinal differentiation was studied by an in vitro reaggregate approach. Reaggregated spheres from dissociated retinal cells of the E6 chick embryo were produced in rotation culture. During the whole culture period of 10 days, experimental cultures were supplemented with different concentrations of the pesticide, from 20 to 120 microM diazinon. The pesticide-treated spheres were reduced in size, and their outer surface was irregular. More importantly, inner structural distortions could be easily traced because the structure of control spheroids can be well characterized by a histotypical arrangement of laminar parts homologous to the normal retina. Acetylcholinesterase activity in diazinon-treated spheres was reduced when compared with controls. As a dramatic effect of exposure to the pesticide, inner plexiform layer (IPL)-like areas in spheroids were not distinguishable anymore. Similarly, photoreceptor rosettes and Müller radial glia were strongly decreased, whereas apoptosis was stimulated. The expression of transcripts for choline-acetyltransferase and muscarinic receptors was affected, revealing an effect of diazinon on the cholinergic system. This further proves the significance of cholinesterases and the cholinergic system for proper nervous system development and shows that further studies of debilitating diazinon actions on development are necessary.