The neuron-restrictive silencer factor (NRSF) binds a DNA sequence element, called the neuron-restrictive silencer element (NRSE), that represses neuronal gene transcription in nonneuronal cells. Consensus NRSEs have been identified in 18 neuron-specific genes. Complementary DNA clones encoding a functional fragment of NRSF were isolated and found to encode a novel protein containing eight noncanonical zinc fingers. Expression of NRSF mRNA was detected in most nonneuronal tissues at several developmental stages. In the nervous system, NRSF mRNA was detected in undifferentiated neuronal progenitors, but not in differentiated neurons. NRSF represents the first example of a vertebrate silencer protein that potentially regulates a large battery of cell type-specific genes, and therefore may function as a master negative regulator of neurogenesis.