The molecular mechanism of retinal ganglion cell (RGC) genesis and development is not well understood. Published data suggest that the process may involve two bHLH genes, ath5 and NSCL1. Gain-of-function studies show that ath5 increases RGC production in the developing retina. We examined whether two chick genes, cath5 and cNSCL1, can guide retinal pigment epithelial (RPE) cells to transdifferentiate toward RGCs. Ectopic expression of cath5 and cNSCL1 in cultured chick RPE cells was achieved through retroviral transduction. cath5 alone was unable to induce de novo expression of early RGC markers, such as RA4 antigen, neurofilament (160 kDa), and a neurofilament-associated antigen. However, cath5 induced the expression of these proteins when the RPE cells were cultured with medium supplemented with bFGF. Since bFGF alone can induce only RA4 antigen, the expression of the additional RGC markers reflects a synergism between cath5 and bFGF in promoting RPE transdifferentiation toward RGCs. Morphologically, the RA4+ cells in bFGF + cath5 cultures appeared more neuron-like than those generated by bFGF alone. cNSCL1 also promoted bFGF-stimulated RPE cells to transdifferentiate toward RGCs that expressed RA4 antigen, N-CAM, Islet-1, neurofilament, and neurofilament-associated antigen. We found that cath5 induced cNSCL1 expression, but not vice versa. Our data suggest that cath5 or cNSCL1 alone was insufficient to induce RPE transdifferentiation into RGCs, but could further neural differentiation initiated by bFGF. We propose that intrinsic factors act synergistically with extrinsic factors during RGC genesis and development. © 2003 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.