We have examined the role of the signalling molecule, retinoic acid, in the process of neurulation and the subsequent growth and differentiation of the central nervous system using quail embryos that have developed in the absence of retinoic acid. Such retinoic acid-free embryos undergo abnormal neural tube formation in terms of its shape and structure, but the embryos do not display spina bifida or exencephaly. The neural tubes have a wider floor plate, a thicker roof plate and a different dorsoventral shape. Phalloidin staining and electron microscopy revealed alterations in the actin filaments and the junctional complexes of the cell layer lining the lumen. Initially the neural tubes proliferated at the same rate as normal, but later the proliferation rate declined drastically and neuronal differentiation was highly deficient. There were very few motoneurons extending neurites into the periphery, and within the neural tube axon trajectories were chaotic. These results reveal several functions for retinoic acid in the morphogenesis and growth of the neural tube, many of which can be explained by defective notochord signalling, but they do not suggest that this molecule plays a role in neural tube closure.