We have previously shown that transcription of the beta 3 nicotinic receptor gene within the chick CNS is regulated by a promoter 143 base pairs (bp) in length. Here, we demonstrate that in the developing visual system this promoter is active in a subset of retinal cells, the majority of which are ganglion cells. Because the beta 3 promoter is activated very early during retina development, it can provide a marker of ganglion cell induction and differentiation. Transfection of neuroretina explants enabled us to detect activity of the beta 3 promoter in premigratory cells localized on the ventricular side of the retina. Double-labeling experiments showed that activation of the beta 3 promoter takes place before the last S-phase, suggesting that this particular phenotypic trait is determined when precursor cells are still proliferating. The beta 3 phenotype is induced in about one-tenth of the total pool of retinal progenitor cells and is stable upon changing the cellular environment. Our study suggests that at the very early stages of retina neurogenesis, some lineage restrictions have already occurred in the population of retinal progenitor cells.