During normal development, large numbers of neurons die by programmed cell death. This phenomena has been extensively studied in the lateral motor column of chick embryos, where approximately 50% of the motoneurons that are initially produced, subsequently die due in part to competition for a limited supply of target-derived trophic support. Inhibitors of RNA and protein synthesis block this cell loss in vivo, indicating a requirement for new gene expression (Oppenheim et al., 1990). Prior to their commitment to death, motoneurons can be isolated as a relatively pure population from chick spinal cord for in vitro study. Cells plated with muscle extract, a potent source of target-derived trophic support, survive, and have large, phase-bright cell bodies and extensive neurite outgrowth. In contrast, motoneurons cultured in the absence of muscle extract die within 48 h. This death can be blocked by the RNA synthesis inhibitor actinomycin D, at the time when the cells become committed to die, suggesting that new gene expression is required for cell death. DNA fragmentation and nuclear condensation indicate that some of these cells die by apoptosis. Therefore, it appears that many aspects of motoneuron development observed in vivo can be reconstituted in vitro. These cultures can be used as a model system for studying neuronal death and may contribute to an understanding of the molecular mechanisms that mediate programmed cell death during neuronal development.