Oligodendrocytes originate in different neural tube domains, within boundaries of expression of a series of patterning genes which condition the diverse morphogenetic programme of each area. Although neuronal and astrocyte heterogeneity are widely accepted, and despite accumulating evidence for oligodendrocyte heterogeneity in vivo, oligodendrocytes in vitro are currently considered as a homogeneous cell population. The present investigation demonstrates that oligodendrocyte diversity can be detected in vitro and characterizes a novel morphological class of O4-positive oligodendrocyte which is consistently identifiable in rat central nervous system cultures. These cells have a very characteristic epithelioid, unbranched and often lobulated morphology which enables their identification within 2 h of plating. Immunostaining shows that this morphological type is sometimes positive for GD3, A2B5 and vimentin, and most of the time positive for Ranscht antibody, O1 and Rip but negative for glial fibrillary acidic protein, OX-42, neuron-specific enolase, nestin and erbB2. The apparent levels and/or distributions of (i) microtubules, (ii) surface glycolipids recognized by O4, O1 and Ranscht antibody, and (iii) the less specific marker carbonic anhydrase II, typically differ from those of nearby classical, branched oligodendrocytes. Cells with this epithelioid morphology also express myelin basic protein and O10 (a proteolipid protein epitope), both of which are markers for mature oligodendrocytes. Conversely, O4+/O1- cells with this membranous appearance were also seen. Although these atypical oligodendrocytes were most abundant in spinal cord cultures (representing >10% of the O4+ population), they were not exclusive to this region and occurred at a low frequency in neonatal optic nerve cultures.