Wholemount antibody labeling techniques and horseradish peroxidase backfilling were used to analyze the pattern of neuronal differentiation in the embryonic Xenopus central nervous system between stages 22 and 35/36. In the spinal cord, the first neurons to differentiate are the Rohon-Beard neurons; they are followed by ventral neurons with descending axons (descending interneurons, motoneurons) and lateral interneurons with commissural axons. The somata and axons of these primary neurons form dorsal, ventral, and lateral columns, respectively; the ventral and lateral columns uninterruptedly continue forward into the brainstem. The distribution and projection patterns of spinal neurons were analyzed quantitatively. Rohon-Beard neurons, commissural interneurons, and primary motoneurons vary in number from segment to segment. Thus, these neurons are not distributed in a segmental pattern. In each segment, neurons of a given type project axons whose length varies over a wide range. The numerical distribution of length of axons formed by a population of neurons of a given type was calculated and expressed as the projection profile of these neurons. For each type of neuron and spinal segment, the projection profile is different. Furthermore, the projection profiles change in a systematic way along the spinal cord. For example, the fraction of Rohon-Beard neurons with long ascending axons steadily increases if one moves towards caudal spinal levels. The findings suggest that suprasegmental cues with a graded distribution along the spinal cord determine the number and projection profile of a particular cell type in a given segment. © 1993 Wiley-Liss, Inc.