The 5' flanking region from the human dopamine beta-hydroxylase gene directs expression of bacterial beta-galactosidase reporter genes to a subset of adult neurons and adrenal chromaffin cells of transgenic mice. In this paper, we examine the spatial and temporal patterns of expression of these transgenes during embryogenesis. Expression begins at embryonic day 9 in the developing central and peripheral nervous systems and persists in cell populations in which expression is observed in adult transgenic mice. However, transient embryonic expression occurs in presumptive neuroblasts in developing sensory ganglia and ventrolateral neural tube that are destined to synthesize neurotransmitters other than catecholamines. These observations support the concept that some cells fated to become "non-catecholaminergic" neurons exhibit transient catecholaminergic features during their differentiation.