We have examined the cellular and synaptic mechanisms underlying the genesis of alternating motor activity in the developing spinal cord of the chick embryo. Experiments were performed on the isolated lumbosacral cord maintained in vitro. Intracellular and whole cell patch clamp recordings obtained from sartorius (primarily a hip flexor) and femorotibialis (a knee extensor) motoneurons showed that both classes of cell are depolarized simultaneously during each cycle of motor activity. Sartorius motoneurons generally fire two bursts/cycle, whereas femorotibialis motoneurons discharge throughout their depolarization, with peak activity between the sartorius bursts. Voltage clamp recordings revealed that inhibitory and excitatory synaptic currents are responsible for the depolarization of sartorius motoneurons, whereas femorotibialis motoneurons are activated principally by excitatory currents. Early in development, the dominant synaptic currents in rhythmically active sartorius motoneurons appear to be inhibitory so that firing is restricted to a single, brief burst at the beginning of each cycle. In E7-E13 embryos, lumbosacral motor activity could be evoked following stimulation in the brainstem, even when the brachial and cervical cord was bathed in a reduced calcium solution to block chemical synaptic transmission. These findings suggest that functional descending connections from the brainstem to the lumbar cord are present by E7, although activation of ascending axons or electrical synapses cannot be eliminated. Ablation, optical, and immunocytochemical experiments were performed to characterize the interneuronal network responsible for the synaptic activation of motoneurons. Ablation experiments were used to show that the essential interneuronal elements required for the rhythmic alternation are in the ventral part of the cord. This observation was supported by real-time Fura-2 imaging of the neuronal calcium transients accompanying motor activity, which revealed that a high proportion of rhythmically active cells are located in the ventrolateral part of the cord and that activity could begin in this region. The fluorescence transients in the majority of neurons, including motoneurons, occurred in phase with ventral root or muscle nerve activity, implying synchronized neuronal action in the rhythm generating network. Immunocytochemical experiments were performed in E14-E16 embryos to localize putative inhibitory interneurons that might be involved in the genesis or patterning of motor activity. The results revealed a pattern similar to that seen in other vertebrates with the dorsal horn containing neurons with gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA)-like immunoreactivity and the ventral and intermediate regions containing neurons with glycine-like immunoreactivity.