Growth factors, hormones, and neurotransmitters have been implicated in the regulation of stem cell fate. Since various neural precursors express functional neurotransmitter receptors, which include G protein-coupled receptors, it is anticipated that they are involved in cell fate decisions. We detected μ-opioid receptor (MOR-1) and κ-opioid receptor (KOR-1) expression and immunoreactivity in embryonic stem (ES) cells and in retinoic acid-induced ES cell-derived, nestin-positive, neural progenitors. Moreover, these G protein-coupled receptors are functional, since [D-Ala 2,MePhe4,Gly-ol5]enkephalin, a MOR-selective agonist, and U69,593, a KOR-selective agonist, induce a sustained activation of extracellular signal-regulated kinase (ERK) signaling throughout a 24-h treatment period in undifferentiated, self-renewing ES cells. Both opioids promote limited proliferation of undifferentiated ES cells via the ERK/MAP kinase signaling pathway. Importantly, biochemical and immunofluorescence data suggest that [D-Ala2,MePhe4,Gly-ol5]enkephalin and U69,593 divert ES cells from self-renewal and coax the cells to differentiate. In retinoic acid-differentiated ES cells, opioid-induced signaling features a biphasic ERK activation profile and an opioid-induced, ERK-independent inhibition of proliferation in these neural progenitors. Collectively, the data suggest that opioids may have opposite effects on ES cell self-renewal and ES cell differentiation and that ERK activation is only required by the latter. Finally, opioid modulation of ERK activity may play an important role in ES cell fate decisions by directing the cells to specific lineages.