The fluorescent carbocyanine dyes dil and diO have an extensive history of use in cell biology, but their use as neuronal tracers is relatively recent. We found in 1985 that these molecules were excellent retrograde and anterograde tracers in the developing nervous system. We went on to show that these dyes were retained in neurons placed in culture, that they initially labelled the processes as well as the cell bodies of cultured neurons, and that they were seemingly non-toxic. We suggested that the major mechanism of translocation for these molecules was lateral diffusion in the membrane, rather than fast axonal transport. This suggestion was recently confirmed in a striking manner by Godement et al., when they showed that these dyes can be used to label axonal projections in fixed tissues. Labelling with carbocyanine dyes has already allowed several exciting advances in developmental neurobiology. In this article we review the properties of carbocyanine dyes and point out some of their uses and advantages.