A variety of growth factors can influence the expression of differentiated properties by cell types of the developing retina. One unresolved question has been whether these factors can direct the differentiation pathway of uncommitted precursors or whether they act to help the expression of properties by already committed cells. To address this question we have studied the effects of basic fibroblast growth factor (bFGF) on the differentiation of ganglion cells and rod photoreceptors in explant cultures of embryonic rat retinas. Incubation of retinas in the presence of bFGF accelerated the appearance of differentiated ganglion cells and incubation in the presence of anti-bFGF antibodies delayed the appearance. bFGF had no effect on the appearance of differentiated rod photoreceptors as judged by expression of opsin, although all-trans-retinoic acid did increase the number of cells expressing opsin. bFGF inhibited the formation of rod photoreceptor rosettes suggesting that it does influence some properties of rods or the adjacent Müller glial cells. The results suggest that bFGF can alter the timing of differentiation of retinal ganglion cells but not direct their production from retinal precursors.