The phenotypically plastic neurons of the embryonic mouse striatum were used to explore mechanisms of catecholamine differentiation in culture. De novo transcription and translation of the CA biosynthetic enzyme, tyrosine hydroxylase (TH), was induced in striatal neurons exposed, simultaneously or sequentially, to the growth factor, acidic fibroblast growth factor (aFGF) and a catecholamine. Although dopamine was the most potent aFGF partner (ED50 = 4 microM), a number of substances, including dopamine (D1) receptor agonists, beta-adrenoceptor agonists, and dopamine uptake inhibitors also trigger TH induction when accompanied by aFGF. However, since none of the receptor antagonists nor transport blockers tested could inhibit dopamine's action, the mechanism remains obscure. Structure-activity analysis suggests that effective aFGF partners all contain an amine group separated from a catechol nucleus by two carbons. Thus, TH expression can be novelly induced by the synergistic interaction of aFGF, and to a lesser extent basic FGF, and a variety of CA-containing partner molecules. We speculate that a similar association between growth factor and transmitter may be required in development for the differentiation of a CA phenotype in brain neurons.