The neuroepithelial cells of the mammalian neural tube are thought to give rise to all classes of differentiated neurons and macroglial cells in the adult CNS. In most cases, the regulation and timing of commitment of neuroepithelial cells to specific differentiative pathways are unknown. It has been proposed that in developing spinal cord, the macroglial cells--astrocytes and oligodendrocytes--arise either by the direct transformation of radial glial cells in the developing cord or, alternatively, by the differentiation of distinct precursor cells which migrate to presumptive white matter from the region of the central canal during development. In this study, the timing of oligodendrocyte differentiation in different levels of the spinal cord and the capacity of specific regions of the spinal cord to give rise to oligodendrocytes at various ages was tested in vitro. At embryonic day 14, all complete segments, as well as all ventral regions along the rostral-caudal axis of the spinal cord, have the capacity for oligodendrogenesis. By contrast, dorsal regions of the thoracic and lumbar spinal cord do not develop the capacity for oligodendrogenesis until later in development. The capacity of dorsal rat spinal cord to give rise to oligodendrocytes appears to be associated with the ventral- to-dorsal migration of oligodendrocyte precursors. These observations suggest that commitment to an oligodendrocyte differentiative pathway appears to occur in a distinct population of ventrally located glial precursors in the embryonic rat spinal cord.