Phenotypic differences between somatic and autonomic motor neurons (SMNs and AMNs, respectively) may be modulated by epigenetic factors during the histogenic migrations of these cells. In order to study this problem experimentally, we have developed an in vitro, organotypic slice preparation of embryonic rat spinal cord. Our main objectives for this preparation were to determine whether in vivo patterns of motor neuronal translocations were mimicked in vitro, and, if they were, to begin to analyze such movements with experimental procedures that cannot be applied to the study of mammalian spinal cord development in vivo. Using a modification of existing organotypic slice procedures, we have shown that ChAT, an axonal surface glycoprotein and a low- molecular-weight neurofilament protein are expressed in slices cultured for up to 21 d, thus indicating that spinal neurons remained viable in vitro for relatively long periods. Most importantly, retrograde labeling and subsequent confocal microscopy have shown that the SMNs and AMNs of the slice preparations become segregated ventrodorsally into two distinct subcolumns as seen in vivo. The formation of separate AMN and SMN subcolumns appears to result from a dorsal translocation of AMNs. The fact that this cellular movement occurs in the slice preparation has allowed us to follow this phenomenon directly within the same specimen over a period of days. In addition, we have been able to observe the translocation of AMNs following the removal of their peripheral synaptic targets. The results of these experiments provide further evidence that AMNs undergo a dorsal translocation during the course of spinal cord development, and that this cellular movement may be due to an active migration. They also indicate that AMN movement is not dependent upon continual connection of these neurons with the paravertebral sympathetic ganglia.