The c-ret proto-oncogene, a member of the receptor tyrosine kinase gene superfamily, plays a critical role in the development of the excretory system and the enteric and autonomic nervous systems of mammalian embryos. To study the potential function of the c-ret locus in lower vertebrates, we have isolated its zebrafish homologue, ret1 and established its expression pattern during embryogenesis. Ret1 mRNA first appears during early somitogenesis in the presumptive brain, spinal cord and excretory system. Within the CNS, expression of ret1 is detected in primary motor and sensory (Rohon-Beard) neurons. Ret1 transcripts are also expressed in subsets of neural crest cells and cranial ganglia as well as in the enteric nervous system. In the excretory system, expression is detected in the developing nephric duct and the pronephros. Our findings reveal a remarkable similarity in the expression pattern of c-ret between higher and lower vertebrates, suggesting that the function of this locus has been conserved throughout vertebrate evolution. Furthermore, the conservation of ret1 expression in cell types which remain unaffected by the mammalian c-ret mutations, such as motor and sensory neurons, suggests a function of this receptor in these cell lineages.