Treatment of chick embryos in ovo with IGF-I during the period of normal, developmentally regulated neuronal death (embryonic days 5-10) resulted in a dose-dependent rescue of a significant number of lumbar motoneurons from degeneration and death. IGF-II and two variants of IGF-I with reduced affinity for IGF binding proteins, des(1-3) IGF-I and long R3 IGF-I, also elicited enhanced survival of motoneurons equal to that seen in IGF-I-treated embryos. IGF-I did not enhance mitogenic activity in motoneuronal populations when applied to embryos during the period of normal neuronal proliferation (E2-5). Treatment of embryos with IGF-I also reduced two types of injury-induced neuronal death. Following either deafferentation or axotomy, treatment of embryos with IGF-I rescued approximately 75% and 50%, respectively, of the motoneurons that die in control embryos as a result of these procedures. Consistent with the survival-promoting activity on motoneurons in ovo, IGF-I, -II, and des(1-3) IGF-I elevated choline acetyltransferase activity in embryonic rat spinal cord cultures, with des(1-3) IGF-I demonstrating 2.5 times greater potency than did IGF-I. A single addition of IGF-I at culture initiation resulted in the maintenance of 80% of the initial ChAT activity for up to 5 days, during which time ChAT activity in untreated control cultures fell to 9%. In summary, these results demonstrate clear motoneuronal trophic activity for the IGFs. These findings, together with previous reports that IGFs are synthesized in muscle and may participate in motoneuron axonal regeneration and sprouting, indicate that these growth factors may have an important role in motoneuron development, maintenance, and recovery from injury.