Ciliary ganglion (CG) neurons undergo target-dependent cell death during embryonic development. Although ciliary neurotrophic factor (CNTF) was identified in vitro by its ability to support the survival of chick CG neurons, its function as a target-derived neurotrophic factor has been questioned by those working on mammalian-derived forms of CNTF. We have purified and cloned a chicken CNTF [chCNTF; formerly growth-promoting activity (GPA)] that is expressed in CG targets during the period of cell death and is secreted by cells transfected with chCNTF. In the present study we used a retroviral vector, RCASBP(A), to overexpress chCNTF in CG target tissues. Elevation of chCNTF biological activity three- to fourfold in the embryonic eye rescued an average of 31% of the neurons that would have normally died in vivo. In some individuals, nearly all of the neurons were rescued. ChCNTF had no effect on the number of neurons observed prior to cell death, nor were there any deleterious effects of either viral infection or overexpression of CNTF. These results show that chCNTF is able to function in vivo as a trophic factor for CG neurons, and suggest that limited availability of trophic support is one of the factors regulating CG neuron survival during development.