Dorsal root ganglia (DRG) in the adult rat contain acetylcholinesterase (AChE) and butyrylcholinesterase (BChE), enzymes implicated in neural morphogenesis. We used quantitative histochemistry, reverse transcription-PCR (RT-PCR), and in situ hybridization histochemistry to study cholinesterase expression during embryogenesis. Longitudinal sections of rat embryos, embryonic day 9 (E9), E11-E17, and E19, were studied by video microscopy of the stained enzyme reaction products. Both enzymes were detectable in the early DRG (E11-E12), with BChE being most prominent. There was a spatiotemporal change in expression of each cholinesterase within the DRG. From E13 on, AChE expression predominated, especially in the neuronal cell bodies, while BChE was more highly expressed in the surrounding neuropil and the ganglionic roots. This distribution resembled the pattern in adult DRG. AChE mRNA levels, as determined by RT-PCR from DRG collected at days E12-E17, and E19, varied in parallel with the intensity of enzyme stain in the DRG. Overall, these results demonstrate temporally regulated ganglionic expression of cholinesterases, which may be important in the development of the sensory nervous system.