The development of photoreceptors in the mammalian retina is thought to be controlled by extrinsic signals. We have shown previously that ciliary neurotrophic factor (CNTF) potently inhibits photoreceptor differentiation in cultures of rat retina. The present study analyzes which developmental processes are affected by CNTF. Rod differentiation as determined by opsin and recoverin immunocytochemistry was effectively blocked by CNTF and leukemia inhibitory factor, but not by other neurotrophic agents tested. CNTF did not influence proliferation, cell death, or survival, and had no effect on the downregulation of nestin immunoreactivity in progenitor cells. Opsin-positive rods could be reverted to an opsin-negative state initially, but became unresponsive to CNTF later. No compensatory increase in the number of other cell types was observed. Application of neutralizing antibodies against CNTF revealed that rod development was partially blocked by an endogenous CNTF-like molecule in control cultures. Our results suggest that CNTF can act as a specific negative regulator of rod differentiation. Its action on photoreceptor precursor cells could serve to synchronize the maturation of photoreceptors, which are born over an extended period of time. Together with other stimulatory signals, CNTF may thus control the temporally and numerically correct integration of photoreceptors into the retinal network.