In vertebrates the neural tube, like most of the embryonic organs, shows discreet areas of programmed cell death at several stages during development. In the chick embryo, cell death is dramatically increased in the developing nervous system and other tissues when the midline cells, notochord and floor plate, are prevented from forming by excision of the axial-paraxial hinge (APH), i.e. caudal Hensen's node and rostral primitive streak, at the 6-somite stage ( Charrier, J. B., Teillet, M.-A., Lapointe, F. and Le Douarin, N. M. (1999). Development 126, 4771-4783). In this paper we demonstrate that one day after APH excision, when dramatic apoptosis is already present in the neural tube, the latter can be rescued from death by grafting a notochord or a floor plate fragment in its vicinity. The neural tube can also be recovered by transplanting it into a stage-matched chick embryo having one of these structures. In addition, cells engineered to produce Sonic hedgehog protein (SHH) can mimic the effect of the notochord and floor plate cells in in situ grafts and transplantation experiments. SHH can thus counteract a built-in cell death program and thereby contribute to organ morphogenesis, in particular in the central nervous system.