Human recombinant glial cell line-derived neurotrophic factor (GDNF) was tested for its ability to stimulate fiber formation and neuron survival in primary cultures of peripheral ganglia dissected from the chicken embryo. GDNF, first characterized by its actions on central nervous system (CNS) neurons, had a marked stimulatory effect on fiber outgrowth in sympathetic and ciliary ganglia. Weaker responses were evoked in sensory spinal and nodose ganglia and in the ganglion of Remak. In addition, survival of neurons from the sympathetic and ciliary ganglia was stimulated by GDNF at 50 ng/ml. The effects were not mimicked by the distant but related protein transforming growth factor beta 1 (TGFβ1). The profile of neurons stimulated by GDNF is also distinct from the patterns of stimulation shown by nerve growth factor (NGF), stimulation strongly sympathetic but not ciliary ganglia, and ciliary neurotrophic factor (CNTF), stimulating mainly the ciliary ganglion. Moreover, using in situ hybridization histochemistry, GDNF was demonstrated to be present in the pineal gland in the new born rat, a target organ for sympathetic innervation. The present results suggest that GDNF is likely to act upon receptors present in several autonomic and sensory neuronal populations. GDNF may serve to support fiber outgrowth and cell survival in peripheral ganglia, adding yet one more trophic factor to the list of specific proteins controlling development and maintenance of the peripheral nervous system. © 1995 Wiley-Liss, Inc.