In newborn and adult mammals, chemosensory drive exerted by CO(2) and H(+) provides an essential tonic input: without it the rhythm of respiration is abolished. It is not known, however, whether this chemosensory drive and the respiratory rhythm appear simultaneously during development. In isolated brainstem-spinal cord preparations from fetal mice, we determined at what stage of fetal life the respiratory rhythm appeared in third to fifth cervical ventral roots (phrenic motoneurons) and whether this fetal rhythm was sensitive to chemosensory inputs. A respiratory-like rhythm consisting of short duration bursts of discharges recurring at 2-16 min(-1) was detected in two of nine embryonic day 13 fetuses; it was abolished by transection of the spinal cord between the first to second cervical segments and was phase-related to rhythmic activity from medullary units of the ventral respiratory group. At embryonic day 13, it coexisted with a slow rhythm (0.1-2.0 min(-1)) of long duration bursts of action potentials which was generated by the spinal cord. At later fetal stages, the respiratory-like rhythm became more robust and of higher frequency, while the spinal cord rhythm became less obvious. At all fetal stages, acidification of the superfusion medium from pH 7.5-7.2 or 7.4-7.3 or 7.4 to 7.2 increased the frequency of both the respiratory-like and the spinal cord rhythms. In addition, acidification reduced the amplitude of the integrated burst activity of the spinal cord rhythm of embryonic day 13-embryonic day 16 fetuses and the respiratory-like rhythm of embryonic day 17 and older fetuses. Our results indicate that the rhythms transmitted by phrenic motoneurons during fetal development are chemosensitive from early fetal stages. Through its effects on induction and patterning of the rhythm, chemosensory drive may play a role in activity-dependent formation of respiratory neural networks.