Homologous recombination was utilized to generate mice with a deletion in the coding sequence of the nerve growth factor (NGF) gene. Animals homozygous for NGF disruption failed to respond to noxious mechanical stimuli, and histological analysis revealed profound cell loss in both sensory and sympathetic ganglia. Within dorsal root ganglia, effects of the mutation appeared to be restricted to small and medium peptidergic neurons. These observations confirm the critical dependence of sensory and sympathetic neurons on NGF and demonstrate that other neurotrophins are not able to compensate for the loss of NGF action on these cells. Examination of the central nervous system revealed that, in marked contrast with neurons of sensory and sympathetic ganglia, basal forebrain cholinergic neurons differentiate and continue to express phenotypic markers for the life span of the null mutant mice. Thus, differentiation and initial survival of central NGF-responsive neurons can occur in the absence of NGF.