The diencephalon is a complex integration centre and intricate relay station of the vertebrate brain. Its development involves the generation of great cellular diversity and neuronal specificity. We report here that it becomes organized in steps, through a stereotyped sequence of neuromeric subdivisions. Diencephalic neuromeres define four cellular domains (D1-D4) that can be followed throughout development, each unit contributing to a well defined part of the adult structural pattern. We propose that the segmental identity of each diencephalic unit is specified by a unique combination of genes, maintained by polyclonal cell lineage restrictions. A comparison of vertebrate and arthropod development suggests that the basic principles that control anterior axial patterning and set up neuronal specificity in the embryonic central nervous system are highly conserved in evolution.