Retinoic acid has profound effects on vertebrate limb morphogenesis (refs 1-6, reviewed in refs 7-9), including in the mouse, where it can act as a teratogen generating phocomelia and bone defects. A retinoic acid gradient, possibly amplified by a graded distribution of cellular retinoic acid-binding protein (CRABP), could provide positional information across the antero-posterior axis of the chick limb bud. The discovery of nuclear retinoic acid receptors (RARs) acting as retinoic acid-inducible enhancer factors provided a basis for understanding how retinoic acid signals could be transduced at the level of gene expression. We have now used in situ hybridization to study the distribution of messenger RNA transcripts of the three murine receptors (mRARs) and CRABP during mouse limb development. Both mRAR alpha and mRAR gamma transcripts, but not those for mRAR beta, are present and uniformly distributed in the limb bud at day 10 post-coitum, whereas CRABP transcripts have a graded proximo-distal distribution, indicating that differential expression of CRABP, but not of mRAR alpha or mRAR gamma, could participate in the establishment of the morphogenetic field. At later stages, mRAR gamma transcripts become specific to the cartilage cell lineage and to the differentiating skin and mRAR beta transcripts are mostly restricted to the interdigital mesenchyme. CRABP transcripts, however, are excluded from regions expressing mRAR gamma and mRAR beta. These results indicate that all three RARs and CRABP have specific functions during morphogenesis and differentiation of the mouse limb.