We describe here how the early limb bud of the quail embryo develops in the absence of retinoids, including retinoic acid. Retinoid-deficient embryos develop to about stage 20/21, thus allowing patterns of early gene activity in the limb bud to be readily examined. Genes representing different aspects of limb polarity were analysed. Concerning the anteroposterior axis, Hoxb-8 was up-regulated and its border was shifted anteriorly whereas shh and the mesodermal expression of bmp-2 were down-regulated in the absence of retinoids. Concerning the apical ectodermal genes, fgf-4 was down-regulated whereas fgf-8 and the ectodermal domain of bmp-2 were unaffected. Genes involved in dorsoventral polarity were all disrupted. Wnt-7a, normally confined to the dorsal ectoderm, was ectopically expressed in the ventral ectoderm and the corresponding dorsal mesodermal gene Lmx-1 spread into the ventral mesoderm. En-1 was partially or completely absent from the ventral ectoderm. These dorsoventral patterns of expression resemble those seen in En-1 knockout mouse limb buds. Overall, the patterns of gene expression are also similar to the Japanese limbless mutant. These experiments demonstrate that the retinoid-deficient embryo is a valuable tool for dissecting pathways of gene activity in the limb bud and reveal for the first time a role for retinoic acid in the organisation of the dorsoventral axis.