Development of dopaminergic neurons was investigated in dissociated cell cultures raised from the diencephalon of male and female rat fetuses from days 14 and 17 of gestation. Striking differences in morphology and function of male and female dopaminergic neurons were observed. Outgrowth of tyrosine hydroxylase-immunoreactive processes initially proceeded at a faster rate in female than in male cultures. Morphological differences disappeared in cultures of gestational day 17. Irrespective of the age of the cultures and of the length of cultivation, the uptake capacity for (3H)dopamine per immunoreactive neuron was twice as high in female than in male cultures. Treatment of the cultures with sex steroids did not influence morphology, numbers or transmitter uptake of tyrosine hydroxylase-immunoreactive neurons. The results suggest that diencephalic dopaminergic systems exhibit a sexual dimorphism that develops unexpectedly early in ontogeny and is independent of the action of gonadal hormones.