The expression of the neuronal type III intermediate filament protein peripherin was examined in the rat embryo during and following neuronogenesis in the spinal cord and the peripheral nervous system. In situ hybridization analysis reveals that peripherin mRNA is found in the mid-gestational rat embryo in ventral and lateral motoneurons in the spinal cord, and in neurons of all peripheral ganglia examined, including spinal, sympathetic, and enteric ganglia. Peripherin mRNA is seen only in post-migratory motoneurons or neuronal cells in aggregating ganglia, indicating that precursor cells do not express peripherin. To examine the expression of the protein, an affinity-purified antibody (anti-per) specific for a bacterially produced peripherin fusion protein was generated. Anti-per specifically recognizes a 58 kDa, cytoskeletal-enriched, nerve growth factor (NGF)-inducible protein of the expected tissue distribution. Immunocytodetection with anti-per shows that the initiation of peripherin protein synthesis is coincident with the morphological differentiation of neurons. In development, peripherin is one constituent of a program of gene expression activated at terminal neuronal differentiation.