The Gal4-UAS technique has been used to misexpress a constitutively active Notch receptor variant (notch1a-intra) in the developing zebrafish retina. This is the first study to use this technique to misexpress genes and assess their function in neural development of the zebrafish. Expression of activated Notch1a either ubiquitously, driven by a heat-shock70 promoter, or in a spatially regulated manner, controlled by the deltaD promoter, causes a block in neuronal differentiation that affects all cell types. Developing cells take on either a glial fate or remain undifferentiated. A large number of cells eventually undergo apoptosis. These phenotypic effects of activated Notch1a are expressed cell autonomously. Cells within central regions of the retina adopt a glial fate if they express activated Notch1a in a time window that extends from 27 to 48 hours postfertilization. This period corresponds mainly to the time of origin of ganglion cells in the normal retina. Activation of notch1a at later stages results in defects in cell type specification that remain restricted to the ciliary marginal zone, whereas neuronal types are specified normally within the central region. These observations indicate that glial differentiation is initiated by Notch1a-intra expressing cells, which become postmitotic in the same time window. Our results strongly suggest that Notch1a instructs a certain cell population to enter gliogenesis, and keeps the remaining cells in an undifferentiated state. Some or all of these cells will eventually succumb to apoptosis.