Low density dissociated cultures of embryonic rat hippocampal cells were used to study the effects of neurotrophin-3 (NT-3) on neuronal morphogenesis. The results obtained indicate that NT-3 enhances neurite outgrowth and branching; this is a dose-dependent effect, detected in approximately 50% of the neurons, and prevented by K-252a, an inhibitor of the trk family of receptor protein kinases. NT-3 also accelerates the development of neuronal polarity, a phenomenon preceded by a dramatic accumulation of bundles of looped microtubules within axonal growth cones; these microtubule bundles contain tyrosinated, detyrosinated, and acetylated alpha-tubulin. Taken collectively, our data suggest that even though the basic shape of hippocampal neurons may be endogenously determined, critical aspects of their morphological development may be modulated by trophic factors such as NT-3. In addition, our observations suggest that at least some of the neuritogenic effects of NT-3 involve a stimulation of microtubule assembly and/or transport.