Acetylcholinesterase (AChE) activity, localized histochemically, appeared in the nuclei of presumptive somitic mesodermal cells prior to the onset of somitogenesis. AChE activity appeared in a rostro-caudal sequence, in cells located the equivalent of five somite lengths caudal to the last formed somite. To investigate whether AChE activity was required for somitogenesis, several inhibitors of AChE activity were tested for their ability to block somitogenesis. Diisopropylfluorophosphate (DFP), a broad spectrum inhibitor of serine proteases and related enzymes, was the only AChE inhibitor tested that disrupted somitogenesis. Gastrulae at 50% epiboly exposed continuously to DFP at concentrations between 40 microM and 90 microM completed epiboly, but exhibited a dose-dependent decrease in the number of somites formed, and a parallel decrease in the caudal extent of somite innervation, by 24 hours post-fertilization (h). Fifteen somite (15h) embryos exposed to DFP at the ED50 of 70 microM for 3 hours, followed by recovery to 24h, developed abnormal somites. Approximately five normal somites formed after drug treatment before the first abnormal somite formed. The abnormal somites corresponded in location to that area of the presumptive somitic mesoderm that would have initiated AChE activity while the DFP was present. While exposed to 70 microM DFP, presumptive somites formed and motoneurons extended processes that had initiated AChE activity at the time of treatment with DFP, although at a slower than normal rate. However, embryos exposed to 1 mM DFP for 30 minutes at both the 5 and 15 somite stages, followed by recovery to 24h, developed the normal number of somites but were reduced in the caudal extent of somite innervation, and occasionally developed abnormal primary motoneurons. As with the abnormal somites, the abnormal motoneurons would have initiated AChE activity while the DFP was present. Presumptive somitic mesoderm unable to initiate AChE activity due to inhibition by DFP developed abnormally. While the effects of DFP are not limited to inhibiting AChE, the data support the "clock and wavefront" model proposed for somite formation, and support the hypothesis that AChE activity has a role in somitogenesis in zebrafish.