We have investigated the development of neurotransmitter metabolism in embryos of the glossiphoniid leech Haementeria ghilianii. The neurotransmitter content of dissected embryonic tissues was measured by means of radioenzymatic assays, while the presence of neurotransmitters in individual identified neurons was detected by means of immunocytochemical and monoamine histofluorescence techniques. The capacity for synthesis of neurotransmitters was measured by incubating dissected embryonic tissues in radiolabeled neurotransmitter precursors. A specific neurotransmitter uptake system present in some neurons was detected by means of an autoradiographic technique. At an early stage of development of the nervous system, when most neurons are just beginning process outgrowth, the nerve cord acquires the capacity to synthesize ACh, 5-HT, and GABA from their immediate precursors, and contains ACh. Moreover, 5-HT-immunoreactive neurons and neurons that are capable of GABA uptake can be identified. Dopamine-containing neurons are first detected by their histofluorescence at a slightly later stage, after process outgrowth is under way. As development continues, the content of and capacity for synthesis of these neurotransmitters increase, as does the number of neurons capable of GABA uptake. During the earlier stages of development, ACh content exceeds 5-HT content, which in turn exceeds dopamine content. By the end of embryogenesis, however, 5-HT and dopamine contents have greatly increased relative to ACh content, with 5-HT content exceeding ACh content by a factor of 2. Of the neurotransmitters thus far studied, 5-HT is present in the highest amount in the juvenile and adult nerve cord. Our results indicate that in the development of the leech nervous system neurotransmitter metabolism is one of the first neuronal characters to differentiate and that the subsequent levels of the different neurotransmitters are differentially regulated.