Receptor tyrosine kinases (RTKs) play important roles in cellular differentiation, survival, and proliferation. To search for genes involved in the survival of motoneurons, we isolated the RTKs specifically expressed on them. We used RT-PCR, by which RNA was obtained from purified embryonic day 5 (E5) chick motoneurons, and screened by in situ hybridization. Of 17 RTK cDNA clones, c-ret expression gradually increased in the motoneurons of the spinal cord during development. Compared with the expression of the neurotrophin receptor, TrkC, that of c-ret was very high in motoneurons from around E17 to adulthood. The level of c-ret expression on the motoneurons was unaffected by deafferentation at E2, but changed after denervation at post-hatching day 2. The in situ hybridization signal for c-ret mRNA increased slightly at day 1, then decreased progressively up to day 8, and increased again 2 weeks after sciatic nerve denervation in the motoneurons of the lumbar spinal cord. There were also changes in the signal of the lesioned sciatic nerve. In the most distal part from the lesioned site, the signal for c-ret mRNA significantly increased from day 3 on after denervation. These results suggested that the c-ret gene may encode the receptor for a factor involved in motoneuron differentiation and the promotion of regeneration of injured peripheral nerves.