In Drosophila, cells are thought to be singled out for a neural fate through a competitive mechanism based on lateral inhibition mediated by Delta-Notch signalling. In tetrapod vertebrates, nascent neurons express the Delta1 gene and thereby deliver lateral inhibition to their neighbours, but it is not clear how these cells are singled out within the neurectoderm in the first place. We have found four Delta homologues in the zebrafish--twice as many as reported in any tetrapod vertebrate. Three of these--deltaA, deltaB and deltaD--are involved in primary neurogenesis, while two--deltaC and deltaD--appear to be involved in somite development. In the neural plate, deltaA and deltaD, unlike Delta1 in tetrapods, are expressed in large patches of contiguous cells, within which scattered individuals expressing deltaB become singled out as primary neurons. By gene misexpression experiments, we show: (1) that the singling-out of primary neurons, including the unique Mauthner cell on each side of the hindbrain, depends on Delta-Notch-mediated lateral inhibition, (2) that deltaA, deltaB and deltaD all have products that can deliver lateral inhibition and (3) that all three of these genes are themselves subject to negative regulation by lateral inhibition. These properties imply that competitive lateral inhibition, mediated by coordinated activities of deltaA, deltaB and deltaD, is sufficient to explain how primary neurons emerge from proneural clusters of neuroepithelial cells in the zebrafish.