The trunk neural crest originates by transformation of dorsal neuroepithelial cells into mesenchymal cells that migrate into embryonic interstices. Fibronectin (FN) is thought to be essential for the process, although other extracellular matrix (ECM) molecules are potentially important. We have examined the ability of three dimensional (3D) ECM to promote crest formation in vitro. Neural tubes from stage 12 chick embryos were suspended within gelling solutions of either basement membrane (BM) components or rat tail collagen, and the extent of crest outgrowth was measured after 22 hr. Fetal calf serum inhibits outgrowth in both gels and was not used unless specified. Neither BM gel nor collagen gel contains fibronectin. Extensive crest migration occurs into the BM gel, whereas outgrowth is less in rat tail collagen. Addition of fibronectin or embryo extract (EE), which is rich in fibronectin, does not increase the extent of neural crest outgrowth in BM, which is already maximal, but does stimulate migration into collagen gel. Removal of FN from EE with gelatin-Sepharose does not remove the ability of EE to stimulate migration. Endogenous FN is localized by immunofluorescence to the basal surface of cultured neural tubes, but is not seen in the proximity of migrating neural crest cells. Addition of the FN cell-binding hexapeptide GRGDSP does not affect migration into either the BM gel or the collagen gel with EE, although it does block spreading on FN-coated plastic. Thus, although crest cells appear to use exogenous fibronectin to migrate on planar substrata in vitro, they can interact with 3D collagenous matrices in the absence of exogenous or endogenous fibronectin. In BM gels, the laminin cell-binding peptide, YIGSR, completely inhibits migration of crest away from the neural tube, suggesting that laminin is the migratory substratum. Indeed, laminin as well as collagen and fibronectin is present in the embryonic ECM. Thus, it is possible that ECM molecules in addition to or instead of fibronectin may serve as migratory substrata for neural crest in vivo.