Mechanosensory hair cells in the sensory patches of the vertebrate ear are interspersed among supporting cells, forming a fine-grained pattern of alternating cell types. Analogies with Drosophila mechanosensory bristle development suggest that this pattern could be generated through lateral inhibition mediated by Notch signalling. In the zebrafish ear rudiment, homologues of Notch are widely expressed, while the Delta homologues deltaA, deltaB and deltaD, coding for Notch ligands, are expressed in small numbers of cells in regions where hair cells are soon to differentiate. This suggests that the delta-expressing cells are nascent hair cells, in agreement with findings for Delta1 in the chick. According to the lateral inhibition hypothesis, the nascent hair cells, by expressing Delta protein, would inhibit their neighbours from becoming hair cells, forcing them to be supporting cells instead. The zebrafish mind bomb mutant has abnormalities in the central nervous system, somites, and elsewhere, diagnostic of a failure of Delta-Notch signalling: in the CNS, it shows a neurogenic phenotype accompanied by misregulated delta gene expression. Similar misregulation of delta; genes is seen in the ear, along with misregulation of a Serrate homologue, serrateB, coding for an alternative Notch ligand. Most dramatically, the sensory patches in the mind bomb ear consist solely of hair cells, which are produced in great excess and prematurely; at 36 hours post fertilization, there are more than ten times as many as normal, while supporting cells are absent. A twofold increase is seen in the number of otic neurons also. The findings are strong evidence that lateral inhibition mediated by Delta-Notch signalling controls the pattern of sensory cell differentiation in the ear.