Trophic factors may function as one of the epigenic signals responsible for the proliferation, growth, migration, and differentiation of neurons and glia during embryogenesis. The present study reports that basic fibroblast growth factor (bFGF) at high concentrations (10–100 ng/ml) is a mitogen for embryonic spinal cord cells that have already committed to a neuronal pathway and are expressing neuronal phenotypes (neuroblasts). Neuroblasts proliferate with a doubling time of 2.5 d. To characterize the nature of cells proliferating in response to bFGF, we have established long-term cultures of neuroblasts that can be passaged, freeze thawed, and recultured. In cultures the proportion of astrocytes remained the same, indicating limited survival and proliferation of these cells in response to bFGF. These results indicate that bFGF has mitogenic effects preferably on neuroblasts. The morphological and biochemical characterizations of the neuronal populations present in the long-term neuroblast cultures are presented here. The presence of cholinergic and GABAergic neurons in the cultures was established by immunocytochemical analysis. The cultures contain a small number of motoneurons as judged by their immunostaining with ChAT, low-affinity NGF receptor (LNGFR), and large size. Among all other growth factors tested for their mitogenic effects on embryonic spinal cord cells in culture, only epidermal growth factor (EGF) showed such effects, but to a lesser degree. The proliferative nature of neuroblasts has made it possible to transduce the Escherichia coli beta- galactosidase (LacZ) gene stably into these cells in vitro using a retroviral vector. The transfected cells expressing the foreign gene can be passaged, freeze thawed, and recultured without the loss of transgenes. The ability to transduce foreign genes stably into these cells permits implantation of these cells in the spinal cord to study cellular and biochemical behaviors and gene expression in defined neuronal populations in in vivo environments.