The shapes of different organs can be explained largely by two fundamental characteristics of their epithelial rudiments - the pattern of branching and the rate of proliferation. Glial-cell-line-derived neurotrophic factor (GDNF) has recently been implicated in the development of metanephric ureteric epithelium (Pichel, J. G., Shen, L., Sheng, H. Z., Granholm, A.-C., Drago, J., Grinberg, A., Lee, E. J., Huang, S. P., Saarma, M., Hoffer, B.J., Sariola, H. and Westphal, H. (1996). Nature 382, 73-76; Sánchez, M.P., Silos-Santiago, I., Frisén, J., He, B., Lira, S.A. and Barbacid, M. (1996). Nature 382, 70-73; Vega, Q.C., Worby, C.A., Lechner, M.S., Dixon, J.E. and Dressler, G.R. (1996). Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. USA 93, 10657-10661). We have analysed the target cells of GDNF and the manner in which it controls ureteric development, and have compared it with other growth factors that have been associated with the regulation of branching morphogenesis, namely hepatocyte growth factor (HGF) and transforming growth factor-beta1 (TGFbeta1). We show that GDNF binds directly to the tips of ureteric bud branches, and that it has the ability to promote primary ureteric buds from various segments of Wolffian duct and to attract ureteric branches towards the source of GDNF. It increases cell adhesion, but is not obviously mitogenic for ureteric cells. The data indicate that GDNF is required primarily for bud initiation. Comparison of GDNF, HGF and TGFbeta1 suggests that the latter act later than GDNF, and may represent a partially redundant set of mesenchyme-derived growth factors that control ureteric development. Thus, GDNF is the first defined inducer in the embryonic metanephric kidney.