Lineage analyses of vertebrate retinae have led to the suggestions that cell fate decisions are made during or after the terminal cell division and that extrinsic factors can influence fate choices. The evidence for a role of extrinsic factors is strongest for development of rodent rod photoreceptors ('rods'). In an effort to identify molecules that may regulate rod development, a number of known factors were assayed in vitro. Ciliary neurotrophic factor (CNTF) was found to have a range of effects on retinal cells. Addition of CNTF to postnatal rat retinal explants resulted in a dramatic reduction in the number of differentiating rods. Conversly, the number of cells expressing markers of bipolar cell differentiation was increased to a level not normally seen in vivo or in vitro. In addition, a small increase in the percentage of cells expressing either a marker of amacrine cells or a marker of Muller glia was noted. It was determined that many of the cells that would normally differentiate into rods were the cells that differentiated as bipolar cells in the presence of CNTF. Prospective rod photoreceptors could make this change even when they were postmitotic, indicating that at least a subset of cells fated to be rods were not committed to this fate at the time they were born. These findings highlight the distinction between cell fate and commitment. Resistance to the effect of CNTF on rod differentiation occurred at about the time that a cell began to express opsin. The time of commitment to terminal rod differentiation may thus coincide with the initiation of opsin expression. In agreement with the hypothesis that CNTF plays a role in rod differentiation in vivo, a greater percentage of cells were observed differentiating as rod photoreceptors in mouse retinal explants lacking a functional CNTF receptor, relative to wild-type littermates.