This study examined the potential for hair cell regeneration in embryonic and neonatal mouse organs of Corti maintained in vitro. Small numbers of hair cells were killed by laser microbeam irradiation and the subsequent recovery processes were monitored by differential interference contrast (DIC) microscopy combined with continuous time- lapse video recordings. Replacement hair cells were observed to develop in lesion sites in embryonic cochleae and on rare occasions in neonatal cochleae. In embryonic cochleae, replacement hair cells did not arise through renewed proliferation, but instead developed from preexisting cells that changed from their normal developmental fates in response to the loss of adjacent hair cells. In cochleae established from neonates, lost hair cells usually were not replaced, but 11 apparently regenerated hair cells and a single hair cell labeled by 3H-thymidine were observed as rare responses to the creation of hair cell lesions in these organs. The results indicate that the organ of Corti can replace lost hair cells during embryonic and on rare occasions during early neonatal development. The ability of preexisting cells to change their developmental fates in response to hair cell death is consistent with the hypothesis that during embryonic development hair cells may inhibit neighboring cells from specializing as hair cells. In neonatal cultures, the rare occurrence of apparently regenerated hair cells indicates that some cells in the postembryonic organ of Corti retain response mechanisms that can lead to self-repair.