Research over the past two decades has shown that the growth of young eyes is guided by vision. If near- or far-sightedness is artificially imposed by spectacle lenses, eyes of primates and chicks compensate by changing their rate of elongation, thereby growing back to the pre-lens optical condition. Little is known about what chemical signals might mediate between visual effects on the retina and alterations of eye growth. We present five findings that point to choroidal retinoic acid possibly being such a mediator. First, the chick choroid can convert retinol into all-trans-retinoic acid at the rate of 11 +/- 3 pmoles mg protein(-1) hr(-1), compared to 1.3 +/- 0.3 for retina/RPE and no conversion for sclera. Second, those visual conditions that cause increased rates of ocular elongation (diffusers or negative lens wear) produce a sharp decrease in all-trans-retinoic acid synthesis to levels barely detectable with our assay. In contrast, visual conditions which result in decreased rates of ocular elongation (recovery from diffusers or positive lens wear) produce a four- to five-fold increase in the formation of all-trans-retinoic acid. Third, the choroidal retinoic acid is found bound to a 28-32 kD protein. Fourth, a large fraction of the choroidal retinoic acid synthesized in culture is found in a nucleus-enriched fraction of sclera. Finally, application of retinoic acid to cultured sclera at physiological concentrations produced an inhibition of proteoglycan production (as assessed by measuring sulfate incorporation) with a EC50 of 8 x 10(-7) M. These results show that the synthesis of choroidal retinoic acid is modulated by those visual manipulations that influence ocular elongation and that this retinoic acid may reach the sclera in concentrations adequate to modulate scleral proteoglycan formation.