To determine the possible role of pituitary adenylate cyclase-activating polypeptide (PACAP) in the development of the sympathoadrenal cell lineage, we have examined the effects of this neurotrophic peptide, in comparison to nerve growth factor (NGF), on the morphology, electrophysiological properties, expression of neuronal and neuroendocrine marker genes, and activity of transcription factors during differentiation of sympathoadrenal-derived cells, using the rat pheochromocytoma PC12 cell model. Both PACAP and NGF elicited rapid neurite outgrowth, which was accompanied by induction of cell excitability and the development of both sodium and calcium currents. Concurrently, PACAP and NGF increased the expression of a marker of synaptic vesicles. By contrast, PACAP, but not NGF, regulated the expression of different constituents of neuroendocrine large dense core vesicles in PC12 cells. Furthermore, PACAP and NGF differentially regulated the expression of mammalian achaete-scute homologue and paired homeobox 2b genes, transcription factors instrumental for sympathoadrenal development. To compare downstream effectors activated by PACAP and NGF, we studied the effects of these factors on the binding activity of consensus 12-O-tetradecanoylphorbol-13-acetate- and cAMP-responsive elements to nuclear extracts of differentiating PC12 cells. We found that both PACAP and NGF markedly increase the binding activity of these cis-regulatory sequences and that PACAP preferentially recruits activator protein-1-like transcription factors to these elements. Taken together, these results show that PACAP and NGF exert common as well as different effects on neuronal and neuroendocrine traits in differentiating PC12 cells, strongly suggesting that these two trophic factors could play complementary roles in the development of the sympathoadrenal cell lineage.