The retinoic acid receptors alpha, beta and gamma (RARalpha, RARbeta and RARgamma) are nuclear hormone receptors that regulate fundamental processes during embryogenesis, but their roles in skeletal development and growth remain unclear. To study skeletal-specific RAR function, we created conditional mouse mutants deficient in RAR expression in cartilage. We find that mice deficient in RARalpha and RARgamma (or RARbeta and RARgamma) exhibit severe growth retardation obvious by about 3 weeks postnatally. Their growth plates are defective and, importantly, display a major drop in aggrecan expression and content. Mice deficient in RARalpha and RARbeta, however, are virtually normal, suggesting that RARgamma is essential. In good correlation, we find that RARgamma is the most strongly expressed RAR in mouse growth plate and its expression characterizes the proliferative and pre-hypertrophic zones where aggrecan is strongly expressed also. By being avascular, those zones lack endogenous retinoids as indicated by previous RARE reporter mice and our direct biochemical measurements and thus, RARgamma is likely to exert ligand-less repressor function. Indeed, our data indicate that: aggrecan production is enhanced by RARgamma over-expression in chondrocytes under retinoid-free culture conditions; production is further boosted by co-repressor Zac1 or pharmacologic agents that enhance RAR repressor function; and RAR/Zac1 function on aggrecan expression may involve Sox proteins. In sum, our data reveal that RARs, and RARgamma in particular, exert previously unappreciated roles in growth plate function and skeletal growth and regulate aggrecan expression and content. Since aggrecan is critical for growth plate function, its deficiency in RAR-mutant mice is likely to have contributed directly to their growth retardation.