We have examined the expression of mRNAs encoding five major neurotransmitter-synthesizing enzymes in MAH cells, a clonal cell line derived by retroviral immortalization of a rat embryonic sympathoadrenal progenitor cell. These mRNAs include tyrosine hydroxylase (TH), choline acetyltransferase (ChAT), tryptophan hydroxylase (TpH), and glutamic acid decarboxylases (GADs) 1 and 2. We find that MAH cells express high levels of TH mRNA and low levels of ChAT and TpH mRNAs. Neither GAD1 nor GAD2 mRNAs are detectable using an RNase protection assay with a detection limit of less than one transcript per cell. A similar pattern of mRNA expression is observed in postnatal superior cervical ganglia, adrenal medulla, and in PC12 cells. Transmitter synthesis and accumulation assays indicate that MAH cells can synthesize both catecholamines and acetylcholine. Thus the TH and ChAT mRNAs detected in these cells are likely to be translated into active enzyme. To corroborate these data obtained using MAH cells, we performed similar transmitter synthesis and accumulation assays on sympathoadrenal progenitors directly isolated from E14.5 fetal adrenal glands by fluorescence-activated cell sorting. These progenitor cells also synthesize and accumulate both catecholamines and acetylcholine, albeit to different extents than MAH cells. Both MAH cells and their nonimmortal counterparts are able to increase slightly their cholinergic function upon short-term exposure to CDF/LIF, a factor known to induce acetylcholine synthesis in postmitotic sympathetic neurons. Taken together, these data suggest that progenitor cells in the sympathoadrenal lineage acquire the ability to simultaneously transcribe several different neurotransmitter enzyme genes early in development, prior to their choice of final cell fate. At the same time, the progenitors possess receptors which regulate expression of these genes in response to environmental factors. This ability may permit the cells to choose from several different transmitter phenotypes in response to different environments, as they migrate through the embryo. The persistent transcription of these genes in adult cells, moreover, may in part account for the phenotypic plasticity of cells in this lineage.