Xenopus laevis is a valuable model system for the study of vertebrate neuroembryogenesis. However, very few well-characterized nervous system- specific molecular markers are available for studies in this organism. We screened a X. laevis adult brain cDNA library using a cDNA probe for mouse low molecular weight neurofilament protein (NF-L) in order to identify neuron-specific intermediate filament proteins. Clones for two distinct neuron-specific intermediate filament proteins were isolated and sequenced. One of these encoded for a Xenopus NF-L (XNF-L) and the other for a novel neuron-specific Xenopus intermediate filament protein (XNIF) that was present earlier and more abundantly than XNF-L during development. XNIF contained a central rod domain with multiple sequence features characteristic of IF proteins. The XNF-L was very similar to mouse NF-L, with a 77% sequence identity in the rod domain and the presence of a polyglutamic acid region in the tail domain, characteristic of type IV neurofilament proteins. In contrast, XNIF showed only 60% identity to mouse NF-L in the rod domain and lacked the glutamic acid-rich sequence in the tail domain. XNIF also had a very low (approximately 38%) sequence identity in the head and tail domains as compared to NF-L and other neurofilament proteins (45% identity to the head domain of alpha-internexin). In the adult frog, XNIF mRNA is detected by Northern blots only within the nervous system and by in situ hybridization histochemistry exclusively in neurons, particularly in the medullary reticular system and spinal cord. Antisera raised against the unique tail region of XNIF detected a single distinct 60 kDa band in Western blots of nervous system cytoskeletal preparations, and this XNIF immunoreactivity was concentrated in axons in the PNS and in small perikarya in the dorsal root ganglion. In contrast, NF-L immunoreactivity was principally in the large perikarya in the dorsal root ganglion. In development, XNIF mRNA appears more abundant than XNF- L mRNA in all premetamorphic stages examined. XNIF mRNA is first detectable at stage 24 (26 hr), whereas stable expression of XNF-L is at stage 35/36 (50 hr). XNIF immunoreactivity is detectable within the cement gland, within many neuronal cell bodies and axon tracts within the developing nervous system, and within all cellular layers of the developing retina. The availability of these two distinct neuron- specific intermediate filament proteins, with different temporal and spatial expression patterns, should provide new markers as well as targets for functional perturbation in the developing X. laevis nervous system.