Effects of ciliary neurotrophic factor (CNTF) on photoreceptor development in dissociated cultures of embryonic chick and newborn rat retina were studied using opsin immunoreactivity to characterize photoreceptor differentiation. In the presence of CNTF, the number of photoreceptors was increased by up to 200% in chick cultures, but was reduced by 82-99% in rat cultures. The EC50 determined for CNTF effects in chick and rat cultures were 0.06 ng ml-1 and 0.02 ng ml-1, respectively. By studying the time course of in vitro development we showed that CNTF transiently stimulated the generation of photoreceptors from opsinnegative precursor cells of chick retina, but completely prevented the same process in rat cultures. These results suggest that CNTF is involved in the regulation of photoreceptor development, but that it can have different actions in the two species, at least in vitro.