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The aim of our study was to evaluate whether ciliary neurotrophic factor (CNTF) can substitute for leukaemia inhibitory factor (LIF) in maintaining pluripotential embryonic stem (ES) cells in culture. Two subclones of D3 ES cells were used to assess cell proliferation and differentiation in the presence of CNTF, LIF or Buffalo rat liver (BRL) cell-conditioned medium, or in the absence of exogenous differentiation inhibiting factors. ES cells maintained in medium supplemented with CNTF for up to four weeks were injected into blastocysts to investigate their in vivo pluripotency in terms of chimaera formation. CNTF inhibited ES cell differentiation in a dose-dependent manner. The most effective concentration was 10 ng CNTF per ml of medium. The effects of CNTF on ES cell differentiation and proliferation were comparable to those of LIF at the same concentration. BRL cell-conditioned medium was less effective at preventing ES cell differentiation but induced their proliferation very markedly. Both ES cell clones efficiently formed chimaeras after long-term culture with CNTF as the only differentiation inhibiting agent. The ability of these ES cells to colonize the germ-line is the ultimate proof that CNTF can preserve the pluripotency of ES cells.