Retinoic acid, an endogenous metabolite of vitamin A (retinol), possesses striking biological activity akin to a morphogen in developing and regenerating vertebrate limbs. Systemic administration of retinoic acid (RA) to pregnant mammals during the period of limb organogenesis invariably results in dose-dependent dysmorphogenesis. In an attempt to uncover the mode of action of RA in the developing limb bud we analyzed, by HPLC methods, the levels of RA and its metabolic precursor, retinol, in embryonic mouse tissues prior to and following maternal exposure to a teratogenic dose of RA. Detectable levels of both RA and its isomer 13-cis-retinoic acid were found in the limb buds of Day 11 mouse embryos (40 +/- 2 somites). Although retinol was the major retinoid found in ethanolic extracts of either whole embryo or the limb buds, the latter is enriched in RA compared to the whole embryo. This indicated either a higher degree of retinol metabolism or a sequestration of RA in the limb bud compared to the rest of the embryo at this stage of development. A study of the time course of retinoid levels in treated embryos showed that changes occur rapidly, are stable for several hours, and then begin to return to pretreatment levels. After a maternal dose of 10 mg/kg RA, which resulted in a mild degree of limb anomalies, peak RA levels in the limb bud increased 50-fold over the endogenous level; a full 300-fold increase was found after a 100 mg/kg dose which results in 100% incidence of phocomelia. Interestingly, a dose-dependent depression in retinol levels was observed after RA treatment both in maternal plasma as well as the embryo. Studies are in progress to trace the intracellular disposition of both retinol and RA as well as any further active metabolite of RA in the limb buds and other embryonic tissues.