The actin-based microfilament system is thought to play a critical role in neuronal development. We have determined specific changes in the composition of microfilaments accompanying neuronal morphogenesis. By using specific antibodies against the isoforms for tropomyosin (Tm) (Tm- 5 and TmBr-1/-3) and actin (beta- and gamma-actin), we found that during early morphogenesis in vivo immature growing axons contain beta- and gamma-actin and Tm-5. In particular, Tm-5 is exclusively located in the immature axonal processes relative to the neuronal cell body. In contrast, beta-actin and Tm-5 are absent in mature, quiescent axons. This developmental loss from axons is associated with an approximately twofold downregulation of beta-actin and Tm-5 levels in the brain; gamma-actin levels do not change, and this molecule is widely distributed throughout neurons during development. The loss of beta- actin and Tm-5 from axons is accompanied by a progressive appearance of TmBr-1/-3. This apparent replacement of Tm-5 with TmBr-1/-3 occurs over a 2 d time period during rat embryonic hindbrain development and is conserved in evolution between birds and mammals. The loss of Tm-5 from axons involves a redistribution of this molecule to the cell soma and dendrites. These findings suggest that specialized microfilament domains are associated with the development and maintenance of neuronal polarity. We conclude that these Tm isoforms and beta-actin are subject to specific patterns of segregation associated with axonal development and neuronal differentiation. This provides a potential molecular basis for the temporal and spatial specificity of microfilament function during neuronal differentiation.