The distribution of the cell adhesion molecule BEN in the developing chick inner ear is described. BEN is first detected in the otic placode at stage 11. As the placode begins to invaginate, BEN becomes concentrated in a ventromedial region extending from the anterior to the posterior end of the otic pit. BEN expression levels increase in this region as the pit closes to form the otocyst, and distinct boundaries become defined along the dorsal and ventral edges of the ventromedial band of BEN expression. BEN expression also becomes concentrated dorsally within the otic epithelium as the pit closes and is observed in the condensing otic ganglion. By stage 22, the ventromedial band of BEN expression splits into two distinct regions, a small caudal patch within which the posterior crista will develop, and a larger anterior patch. By stage 26, this larger anterior patch of cells expressing BEN becomes subdivided into five separate areas corresponding to the regions within which the anterior crista, the lateral crista, the utricle, the saccule, and both the basilar papilla and lagenar macula form. Hair cells only develop within these regions defined by BEN distribution. The data suggest that the ventromedial patch of BEN expression observed from stage 11 onwards defines a single sensory competent zone from which all sensory organs of the inner ear develop. BEN immunoreactivity in the inner ear declines after stage 38. In response to noise exposure, upregulation of BEN expression is mainly detected in regions of the posthatch papilla where the damage is severe and regenerating hair cells are not observed. The regenerating hair and supporting cells do not express BEN, highlighting a molecular difference between the processes of development and regeneration. J. Comp. Neurol. 434:275–288, 2001. © 2001 Wiley-Liss, Inc.