Leukemia inhibitory factor (LIF), a peptide growth factor with multiple activities, has recently been shown to support the generation and survival of sensory neurons in cultures of mouse neural crest and dorsal root ganglia (DRG). We have conducted binding experiments with 125I-LIF on cultures of DRG to determine the receptor distribution for LIF on these cells and found that at least 60% of the sensory neurons in the cultures bound 125I-LIF, all of which could be eliminated by the addition of unlabeled LIF. The other cells in the culture, which morphologically appeared to be Schwann cells, did not bind appreciable quantities of 125I-LIF. In order to investigate whether LIF is retrogradely transported to sensory neurons in vivo, 125I-LIF was injected into the footpads and gastrocnemius muscles of newborn and adult mice, following sciatic nerve ligation. Radioactivity accumulated in the distal portion of the sciatic nerve, indicating retrograde transport of LIF. Subsequent experiments on mice with unligated sciatic nerves showed that 125I-LIF is specifically transported into the sensory neurons of the DRG. There was no apparent transport of 125I-LIF into motor neurons in the spinal cord. These experiments demonstrate that LIF can specifically bind to and be transported by sensory neurons and further support the idea that LIF acts as a target-derived neurotrophic factor, analogous to NGF.