Adult rat chromaffin cells in vitro show a large proliferative response to NGF, followed by neuronal differentiation. Infection of replicating chromaffin cells with a retrovirus carrying the Escherichia coli beta- galactosidase (beta-gal) gene demonstrates beta-gal expression in cells that continue to multiply, that differentiate into neurons, and that become static. The effects of NGF on proliferation and differentiation are abolished by the protein kinase inhibitors K252a and staurosporine, and by cholera toxin, an activator of adenylate cyclase. They are diminished, but not abolished, by high concentrations of dexamethasone. Both cholera toxin alone and phorbol myristate acetate (PMA), an activator of protein kinase C, elicit small and inconsistent mitogenic responses. The responses to PMA cannot be shown to be additive with the effects of NGF. NGF is a known mitogen and neuritogen for chromaffin cells from neonatal rats, but has not previously been believed to affect similarly chromaffin cells from adults. The present findings suggest that portions of NGF signaling pathways might continue to be involved in regulating proliferation of adult rat chromaffin cells in vivo, and might be constitutively activated in PC12 cells and other adrenal medullary tumors. They further suggest that rat chromaffin cells might be propagated in vitro to obtain large numbers of sympathetic neurons expressing normal or exogenous genes.