Three polypeptides that compose neurofilaments, designated H, M, and L, are synthesized in the cell bodies of neurons and subsequently conveyed down their axons by the process of slow axonal transport. The axonal form of H, which is a component of the cross bridges between the neurofilaments, is antigenically different from the form in the cell bodies and dendrites. To understand how this special form of H is directed to the axon, and more generally how intracellular differentiation is established and maintained by the selective delivery of different molecular species to different compartments of a cell, we have studied the events that occur immediately after the synthesis of the three neurofilament polypeptides in the retinas of rabbits. We observed that H and M are synthesized in the retina as precursor polypeptides, EH and EM, that migrate markedly faster on SDS polyacrylamide gels than their mature axonal forms. The maturation of these precursors requires more than one day and appears to involve their phosphorylation. Only the electrophoretically mature forms appear in the axons of the retinal ganglion cells in the optic nerve. We consider the following interpretation of these observations. Shortly after they are translated in the cell body, the neurofilament polypeptides become phosphorylated at multiple sites. However, only after they have moved a distance of several hundred micrometers down the axon, H and M are phosphorylated at additional sites, causing their conformation or binding properties to change. This change, which is reflected in the reduction of their electrophoretic mobility and the appearance of new antigenic determinants, may function to alter the H-mediated crossbridges and produces the morphological and structural properties of the neurofilament lattice that is characteristic of axons.