The developmental appearance of ameboid and ramified microglia in the rat brain has been examined by immunofluorescent localization of vaults, recently described ribonucleoprotein particles (Kedersha and Rome, 1986a). Vaults are distinct, multiarched structures of unknown function expressed by higher and lower eukaryotic species. Although vaults have been detected in all mammalian cells examined to date, they are highly enriched in macrophages. In the brain, vault antisera is highly specific for both ameboid and ramified microglia. The developmental profile of vault immunoreactivity in rat brain slices suggests that microglia enter the brain at 2 locations, with different time scales for each. The first migration, which begins before embryonic day 15 and subsides between postnatal days 7 and 14, was identified by vault immunoreactivity and Bandeiraea simplicifolia B4- isolectin (a microglia marker) staining. The cells appear to enter from blood vessels and display a ramified morphology as soon as they are detected in the brain. The second microglial migration occurs in the first postnatal week, when ameboid microglia appear in the corpus callosum and other large fiber tracts. Ameboid microglia appear to differentiate into ramified microglia between postnatal days 4 and 14. Vault immunoreactivity, as a very early microglial marker, provides new insight regarding the much-debated origin of the ramified microglia. It is quite clear that ameboid cells are not the sole source of ramified microglia because ramified cells can be detected before the influx of ameboid microglia. Colocalization studies with monocyte/macrophage markers ED1 and OX42 demonstrate that both ramified and ameboid microglia originate from monocyte lineage.