Hair cell fate determination in the inner ear has been shown to be controlled by specific genes. Recent loss-of-function and gain-of-function experiments have demonstrated that Math1, a mouse homolog of the Drosophila gene atonal, is essential for the production of hair cells. To identify genes that may interact with Math1 and inhibit hair cell differentiation, we have focused on Hes1, a mammalian hairy and enhancer of split homolog, which is a negative regulator of neurogenesis. We report here that targeted deletion of Hes1 leads to formation of supernumerary hair cells in the cochlea and utricle of the inner ear. RT-PCR analysis shows that Hes1 is expressed in inner ear during hair cell differentiation and its expression is maintained in adulthood. In situ hybridization with late embryonic inner ear tissue reveals that Hes1 is expressed in supporting cells, but not hair cells, of the vestibular sensory epithelium. In the cochlea, Hes1 is selectively expressed in the greater epithelial ridge and lesser epithelial ridge regions which are adjacent to inner and outer hair cells. Co-transfection experiments in postnatal rat explant cultures show that overexpression of Hes1 prevents hair cell differentiation induced by Math1. Therefore Hes1 can negatively regulate hair cell differentiation by antagonizing Math1. These results suggest that a balance between Math1 and negative regulators such as Hes1 is crucial for the production of an appropriate number of inner ear hair cells.