Ciliary ganglion (CG) neurons, like other neuronal populations, become dependent on their targets for survival during development. We have previously purified and cloned a secreted ciliary neurotrophic factor that was called growth-promoting activity (GPA). We report here the expression and purification of a highly active form of recombinant GPA, the preparation of GPA-specific polyclonal and monoclonal antibodies, and the use of these antibodies to investigate the cellular location and timing of GPA expression in tissues innervated by CG neurons. Virtually all of the trophic activity in extracts of embryonic eyes could be depleted by GPA-specific antibodies. GPA-like immunoreactivity was found in both targets of the CG: the arterial vasculature of the choroid layer and the ciliary body of the eye. In the choroid layer, GPA was localized to smooth muscle cells surrounding the choroid arteries. Staining in the choroid layer was first detectable at embryonic day (E) 10, or about 2 days after cell death has begun in the ganglion, then increased in intensity through E19. Quantification of trophic activity from whole eye extracts at various ages showed a small increase in activity observed between E9 and E12 and at least a 10-fold increase between E12 and E18. The presence of GPA protein in target cells of CG neurons during the specific developmental period when these neurons undergo cell death is consistent with its proposed function as a target-derived ciliary neurotrophic factor.