Glial-cell-line-derived neutrophic factor (GDNF) promotes the survival and phenotype of central dopaminergic noradrenergic and motor neurons, as well as various subpopulations of peripheral sensory and sympathetic neurons. GDNF is structurally related to members of the transforming growth factor (TGF)-beta superfamily, several members of which have well-characterized receptor systems; however, GDNF receptors still remain undefined. Here we show that GDNF binds to, and induces tyrosine phosphorylation of, the product of the c-ret proto-oncogene, an orphan receptor tyrosine kinase, in a GDNF-responsive motor-neuron cell line. Ret protein could also bind GDNF and mediate survival and growth responses to GDNF upon transfection into naive fibroblasts. Moreover, high levels of c-ret mRNA expression were found in dopaminergic neurons of the adult substantia nigra, where exogenous GDNF protected Ret-positive neurons from 6-hydroxydopamine-induced cell death. Thus the product of the c-ret proto-oncogene encodes a functional receptor for GDNF that may mediate its neurotrophic effects on motor and dopaminergic neurons.