Nerve growth factor (NGF) is a neurotrophic factor responsible for the differentiation and survival of sympathetic and sensory neurons as well as selective populations of cholinergic neurons. NGF binds to specific cell-surface receptors but the mechanism for transduction of the neurotrophic signal is unknown. Several experiments using the NGF-responsive pheochromocytoma cell line, PC12, have implicated tyrosine phosphorylation in NGF-mediated responses, although no NGF-specific tyrosine kinases have been identified. Here we show that NGF induces tyrosine phosphorylation and tyrosine kinase activity of the trk proto-oncogene product, a tyrosine kinase receptor whose expression is restricted in vivo to neurons of the sensory spinal and cranial ganglia of neural crest origin. Tyrosine phosphorylation of trk by NGF is rapid, specific and occurs with picomolar quantities of factor, indicating that the response is mediated by physiological amounts of NGF. Activation of the trk tyrosine kinase receptor provides a possible mechanism for signal transduction by NGF.