Ciliary neurotrophic factor (CNTF) was originally characterized as a survival factor for chick ciliary neurons in vitro. More recently, it was shown to promote the survival of a variety of other neuronal cell types and to affect the differentiation of E7 chick sympathetic neurons by inhibiting their proliferation and by inducing the expression of vasoactive intestinal peptide immunoreactivity (VIP-IR). In cultures of dissociated sympathetic neurons from newborn rats, CNTF induces cholinergic differentiation as shown by increased levels of choline acetyltransferase (ChAT). This increase is paralleled by a reduction of tyrosine hydroxylase (TH) activity. Moreover, CNTF promotes the differentiation of bipotential 02A progenitor cells to type-2-astrocytes in vitro. To help establish which, if any, of these functions CNTF exerts in vivo, it is necessary to determine its primary structure, cellular expression, developmental regulation and localization. The complementary DNA-deduced amino-acid sequence and subsequent expression of cDNA clones covering the entire coding region in HeLa-cells indicate that CNTF is a cytosolic protein. This, together with its regional distribution and its developmental expression, show that CNTF is not a target-derived neurotrophic factor. CNTF thus seems to exhibit neurotrophic and differentiation properties only after becoming available either by cellular lesion or by an unknown release mechanism.