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Neurotrophin-3 (NT-3) is required for the development of most sensory neurons of the dorsal root ganglia. Using electrophysiological techniques in mice with null mutations of the NT-3 gene, we show that two functionally specific subsets of cutaneous afferents differentially require this factor: D-hair receptors and slowly adapting mechanoreceptors; other cutaneous receptors were unaffected. Merkel cells, which are the end organs of slowly adapting mechanoreceptors, are virtually absent in 14-day-old homozygous mutants and are severely reduced in adult NT-3 heterozygous animals. This loss of Merkel cells, together with their innervation, happens in the first postnatal weeks of life, in contrast to muscle spindles and afferents, which are never formed in the absence of NT-3. Thus, NT-3 is essential for the maintenance of specific cutaneous afferents known to subserve fine tactile discrimination in humans.