Chick embryo retinal ganglion cell (RGC) axons grow to the optic tectum along a stereotyped route, as if responding to cues distributed along the pathway. We showed previously that, in culture, RGCs from embryonic Day 6 retina are responsive to the neurite-promoting effects of the extracellular matrix glycoprotein laminin and that this response is lost by RGCs at a later stage of development. Here we report that, before axon outgrowth is initiated in vivo, laminin, is expressed along the optic pathway at nonbasal lamina sites that are accessible to the growth cones of RGC axons. The distribution of laminin within the pathway is consistent with its localization at the end-feet of neuroepithelial cells that line the route, and it continues to be expressed at these marginal sites during the first week of embryonic development. At later stages, concomitant with the loss of response by RGCs in culture, laminin becomes restricted to basal laminae at the retinal inner limiting membrane and pial surface of the optic pathway. Neurofilament-positive RGC axons bind a monoclonal antibody, JG22, which recognizes the laminin/fibronectin receptor complex, and continue to do so throughout embryonic development. We show that, in vitro, the JG22 antigen expressed by RGCs appears to function as a laminin receptor, by demonstrating that JG22 antibody blocks neurite outgrowth on a substrate of laminin. These findings are consistent with the possibility that laminin defines a transient performed pathway specifically recognized by early RGC growth cones as they navigate toward their central target.