Using the technique of homologous recombination in embryonic stem cells, we generated mice bearing a targeted disruption of the gene encoding the neurofilament light (NF-L) protein. The absence of NF-L protein in mice resulted in dramatic declines of approximately 20-fold in the levels of neurofilament medium and heavy proteins in the brain and sciatic nerve while increases were detected for other cytoskeletal proteins such as tubulin and GAP-43. Despite a lack of neurofilaments and hypotrophy of axons, the NF-L knockout mice develop normally and do not exhibit overt phenotypes. However, in both NF-L -/- and NF-L +/- mice, the regeneration of myelinated axons following crush injury of peripheral nerves was found to be abnormal. In the second week after axotomy, the number of newly regenerated myelinated axons in the sciatic nerve and facial nerve of NF-L -/- mice corresponded to only approximately 25 and approximately 5% of the number of myelinated axons found in normal mice, respectively. At this early postaxotomy stage, electron microscopy of nerve segments distal to the crush site in NF-L -/- mice revealed abundant clusters of axonal sprouts that were indicative of retarded maturation of regenerating fibers. The analysis of the distal sciatic nerve at 2 months after crush indicated that neurofilament-deficient axons have the capacity to regrow for a long distance and to remyelinate, albeit at a slower rate. These results provide the first direct evidence for a role of neurofilaments in the maturation of regenerating myelinated axons.