BACKGROUND: Pelvic ganglia are derived from the sacral neural crest and contain both sympathetic and parasympathetic neurons. Various members of the neurotrophin and GDNF families of neurotrophic factors have been shown to play important roles in the development of a variety of peripheral sympathetic and parasympathetic neurons; however, to date, the role of these factors in the development of pelvic ganglia has been limited to postnatal and older ages. We examined the effects of NGF, NT-3, GDNF, neurturin and artemin on cell migration and neurite outgrowth from explants of the pelvic ganglia from embryonic and newborn mice grown on collagen gels, and correlated the responses with the immunohistochemical localization of the relevant receptors in fixed tissue. RESULTS: Cell migration assays showed that GDNF strongly stimulated migration of tyrosine hydroxylase (TH) cells of pelvic ganglia from E11.5, E14.5 and P0 mice. Other factors also promoted TH cell migration, although to a lesser extent and only at discrete developmental stages. The cells and neurites of the pelvic ganglia were responsive to each of the GDNF family ligands--GDNF, neurturin and artemin--from E11.5 onwards. In contrast, NGF and NT-3 did not elicit a significant neurite outgrowth effect until E14.5 onwards. Artemin and NGF promoted significant outgrowth of sympathetic (TH+) neurites only, whereas neurturin affected primarily parasympathetic (TH-negative) neurite outgrowth, and GDNF and NT-3 enhanced both sympathetic and parasympathetic neurite outgrowth. In comparison, collagen gel assays using gut explants from E11.5 and E14.5 mice showed neurite outgrowth only in response to GDNF at E11.5 and to neurturin only in E14.5 mice. CONCLUSION: Our data show that there are both age-dependent and neuron type-dependent differences in the responsiveness of embryonic and neo-natal pelvic ganglion neurons to growth factors.