In mammals, the adhesion and fusion of the palatal shelves are essential mechanisms in the development of the secondary palate. Failure of any of these processes leads to the formation of cleft palate. The mechanisms underlying palatal shelf adhesion are poorly understood, although the presence of filopodia on the apical surfaces of the superficial medial edge epithelial (MEE) cells seems to play an important role in the adhesion of the opposing MEE. We demonstrate here the appearance of chondroitin sulphate proteoglycan (CSPG) on the apical surface of MEE cells only immediately prior to contact between the palatal shelves. This apical CSPG has a functional role in palatal shelf adhesion, as either the alteration of CSPG synthesis by beta-D-Xyloside or its specific digestion by chondroitinase AC strikingly alters the in vitro adhesion of palatal shelves. We also demonstrate the absence of this apical CSPG in the clefted palates of transforming growth factor beta 3 (TGF-beta(3)) null mutant mice, and its induction, together with palatal shelf adhesion, when TGF-beta(3) is added to TGF-beta(3) null mutant palatal shelves in culture. When chick palatal shelves (that do not adherein vivo nor express TGF-beta(3), nor CSPG in the MEE) are cultured in vitro, they do not express CSPG and partially adhere, but when TGF-beta(3) is added to the media, they express CSPG and their adhesion increases strikingly. We therefore conclude that the expression of CSPG on the apical surface of MEE cells is a key factor in palatal shelf adhesion and that this expression is regulated by TGF-beta(3).