Leukemia inhibitory factor (LIF) is a member of the IL-6 cytokine family that functions in the survival, repair and formation of neurons as well as in the maintenance of neural and embryonic stem cells. The functions of LIF have been well documented in mammals, however until recently, the presence of IL-6 family cytokines in ectothermic vertebrates has only been speculated. We report on the identification of lif and lifr transcripts in the zebrafish and document the expression of these molecules in the developing embryos and tissues of adult zebrafish. We also examined the phylogenetic relationship between these molecules and other IL-6 cytokine family members known in mammals. In adult zebrafish, lif is expressed in the kidney and brain while lifr is expressed in the kidney, gill, brain, spleen and liver. During zebrafish embryogenesis, lif and lifr are both expressed as early as 12 hours postfertilization (hpf). In developing zebrafish, lif is expressed in the otic vesicle, retina and cranial sensory ganglia, and lifr is strongly expressed in the notochord, forebrain, otic vesicle, cranial ganglia and the retina. Morpholino knockdown of Lif and Lifr in developing embryos suggests that Lifr, but not Lif is required for proper neural development. lifr morpholino-injected embryos exhibit defects in the trigeminal, facial and vagal branchiomotor neurons, and improper axonal development as measured by acetylated tubulin staining. These embryos also display severe hydrocephaly by 48 hpf. This suggests that Lifrs are involved in proper neural development in zebrafish. This is the first evidence of the expression and role of an LIFR-like molecule in developing fish.