Dissociated newborn rat retinal cells were maintained in monolayer culture for periods of up to 11 d. When grown in the absence of exogenous growth factors, 1–2% of the total neuronal population expressed opsin (the photopigment that is specific for maturing photoreceptors). Addition of a single dose of 10 ng/ml basic fibroblast growth factor (bFGF) to the culture medium induced an average increase of sixfold in the numbers of neurons expressing opsin. This supplementation had little effect on the total number of differentiated neurons or of glial cells when measured at the same time points. Furthermore, another specific class of retinal neurons, the amacrine cells, showed no changes following exposure to this growth factor. Two other growth factors known to exert neurotrophic effects, epidermal and nerve growth factor, were without effect. The effect of bFGF was dose dependent, with highly significant differences being observed with as little as 100 pg/ml, and with 700 pg/ml eliciting half-maximal stimulation; maximal effects were observed at 10 ng/ml. Induction of opsin expression by low concentrations of bFGF was blocked completely by an antiserum directed specifically against bFGF, but not by preimmune serum immunoglobulins. This increase in the number of photoreceptors expressing opsin following exposure to bFGF could have been due to either increased cell survival, increased proliferation of progenitor cells, or increased differentiation of immature photoreceptors. There was no increase in overall cell survival under the experimental conditions used, and double labeling immunocytochemistry combined with autoradiographic analysis of 3H- thymidine uptake showed that proliferation of neuronal precursors was not enhanced by the addition of bFGF. In contrast to these observations, cultures established from older (postnatal day 3) retina revealed large numbers of opsin-expressing photoreceptors in all culture plates, with or without added growth factors. This reduction in the stimulatory effects of bFGF with increasing postnatal age is consistent with the period of sensitivity being limited to the cycling of neuronal precursors. It is possible that a bFGF-like molecule is secreted by neighboring cells such as the retinal pigmented epithelium, to participate in retinal development and differentiation. To our understanding, this molecule is the first protein identified to influence specifically the differentiation of photoreceptor cells.