The protein products (p21) of the ras cellular proto-oncogenes are thought to transduce membrane signals necessary for the induction of cell division. However, there is uncertainty as to the precise role of ras p21 in mediating ligand-membrane receptor signals leading to cell differentiation. Treatment of rat phaeochromocytoma cells (PC12) with nerve growth factor (NGF) results in the induction of a number of phenotypic characteristics of sympathetic neurones, including cessation of cell division and outgrowth of neuronal processes (neurites). Here we report that microinjection of antibody to ras p21 into PC12 cells inhibited neurite formation and resulted in temporary regression of partially extended neurites, an effect which was observed up to 36 h after initiation of NGF treatment. Neurite formation induced by cyclic AMP was unaffected by injection of anti-p21 antibody. These results indicate that p21 is involved in the initiation phase of NGF-induced neurite formation in PC12 cells and has a role in hormone-mediated cellular responses distinct from cell proliferation.