The spatiotemporal distribution of cell death in the chick embryo neural tube and spinal cord (brachial region) was examined between stage (St.) 12 and 22, in plastic semithin sections. Between St. 12 and 16, the total number of pycnotic cells per segment was low, whereas after St. 16 the number of pycnotic cells was substantially increased. Between St. 17 and 19 three cell death foci or regions could be recognized. One region, the dorsal pycnotic zone, was located in the most dorsal part of the spinal cord, including the neural crest, with the highest number of pycnotic cells observed at St. 18. The second region, or ventral pycnotic zone, was located between motoneurons and the floor plate and had the highest number of dying cells at St. 17. The third region, the floor plate pycnotic zone, was located in the midportion of the floor plate and had the greatest amount of cell death at St. 19. Although low numbers of pycnotic cells were also observed in other regions between St. 17 and 19, no pycnotic cells were found in the ventrolateral region that gives rise to motoneurons. Ultrastructural observations as well as data from in situ nick end labeling indicate that the pycnotic cells observed in the neural tube die by apoptosis and that the debris from the dead cells is phagocytized primarily by adjacent healthy neuroepithelial cells. Although the spatiotemporal distribution of pycnotic cells suggests that cell death at these early stages could play a role in establishing the pioneer axonal pathway for spinal commissural neurons, preliminary observations following perturbations of cell death do not support this notion. Alternatively, early cell death may be involved in the regulation of cellular patterning along the dorsoventral axis of the neural tube by a kind of negative selection of specific progenitor cells.