The CRABP I gene is expressed in a spatiotemporal pattern in neural and mesenchymal tissues at the onset of organogenesis. The neural pattern of CRABP I expression includes specific rhombomeres of the hindbrain, neural crest cells and their derivatives the optic stalk, and the central area of the neural retina. We have created transgenic mouse lines with CRABP I 5' and transcribed regions fused to the lacZ structural gene that recapitulate much of this neural pattern of expression. Sequences 5' of the transcription initiation site between -7.8 and -3.2 kb confer beta-galactosidase expression to specific rhombomeres, migrating neural crest cells, trigeminal ganglion, the optic stalk, and the neural retina. We have also defined a region located between exon 1 and exon 8 that confers a portion of this expression pattern, including the mesencephalic projections of the trigeminal ganglion, the inner layer of the neural retina, and the peripheral layer of the posterior hindbrain. CRABP I expression in mesenchyme appears to require sequences in addition to or outside of those examined here.