Proliferation in the rat retina, as in other parts of the nervous system, occurs during a restricted period of development. In addition to regulating cell number, the mechanisms that control proliferation influence the patterning of tissues, and may affect the determination of cell type. To begin to determine how proliferation is controlled, several growth factors found in the retina were tested for effects on progenitor cell division in culture. Proliferation was enhanced by TGF alpha, bFGF and aFGF, and many of the dividing cells later differentiated into cells with the antigenic phenotypes of retinal neurons and glial cells. The mitotic response of retinal cells to these factors changed during development: progenitor cells from younger retinas (embryonic day 15 to 18; E15-E18) were more responsive to FGF's, while progenitor cells from older retinas (greater than E20) were more responsive to TGF alpha. Progenitor cells stopped dividing in vitro, even when treated with excess mitogen. These observations suggest that proliferation in the retina may be stimulated by multiple mitogenic signals provided by TGF alpha, FGF, or related factors, and that proliferation is not controlled by limiting concentrations of mitogen alone. Rather, these data demonstrate that retinal cells change during development in their responsiveness to mitogenic signals. Such changes may contribute to the regulation of proliferation.