The normal embryonic development of spinal cord motoneurons (MNs) involves the proliferation of precursor cells followed by the degeneration of approximately 50% of postmitotic MNs during the period when nerve-muscle connections are being established. The death of MNs in vivo can be ameliorated by activity blockade and by treatment with muscle extracts. Muscle activity and innervation have been suggested to regulate the availability of putative muscle-derived neurotrophic agent(s), and MNs are thought to compete for limited amounts of these trophic agents during normal development. Thus, activity and innervation are thought to regulate MN survival by modulating trophic factor availability. We have tested this notion by examining MN survival in vivo and ChAT development in spinal cord neurons in vitro following treatments with partially purified muscle extracts from normally active, paralyzed (genetically or pharmacologically), aneural, denervated, slow tonic, and fast-twitch muscles from embryonic and postnatal animals. Extracts from active and chronically inactive embryonic avian and mouse muscles were found to be equally effective in promoting the in vivo survival of MNs in the chick embryo. Similarly, extracts from fast-twitch and slow tonic postnatal avian muscles did not differ in their ability to promote both MN survival in vivo and ChAT activity in vitro. Although aneural and control embryonic muscle extract had similar effects on ChAT development in vitro, aneural muscle extract contained somewhat less MN survival-promoting activity when tested in vivo. By contrast, denervated postnatal muscle extract was more effective in promoting both MN survival in vivo and ChAT activity in vitro than age-matched control muscle extract.