The diversity of neurons in sympathetic ganglia and dorsal root ganglia (DRG) provides intriguing systems for the analysis of neuronal differentiation. Cell surface receptors for the GDNF family ligands (GFLs) glial cell-line-derived neurotrophic factor (GDNF), neurturin and artemin, are expressed in subpopulations of these neurons prompting the question regarding their involvement in neuronal subtype specification. Mutational analysis in mice has demonstrated the requirement for GFL signalling during embryonic development of cholinergic sympathetic neurons as shown by the loss of expression from the cholinergic gene locus in ganglia from mice deficient for ret, the signal transducing subunit of the GFL receptor complex. Analysis in mutant animals and transgenic mice overexpressing GFLs demonstrates an effect on sensitivity to thermal and mechanical stimuli in DRG neurons correlating at least partially with the altered expression of transient receptor potential ion channels and acid-sensitive cation channels. Persistence of targeted cells in mutant ganglia suggests that the alterations are caused by differentiation effects and not by cell loss. Because of the massive effect of GFLs on neurite outgrowth, it remains to be determined whether GFL signalling acts directly on neuronal specification or indirectly via altered target innervation and access to other growth factors. The data show that GFL signalling is required for the specification of subpopulations of sensory and autonomic neurons. In order to comprehend this process fully, the role of individual GFLs, the transduction of the GFL signals, and the interplay of GFL signalling with other regulatory pathways need to be deciphered.