The optic nerve of the developing rat was examined for the presence of laminin, an adhesive glycoprotein, to assess whether it might serve as a substrate for retinal axon growth in vivo. The optic stalk and nerve of developing rats were screened immunohistochemically for the presence of laminin before, during, and after the period of retinal axon growth. On embryonic day 14 (E14), laminin immunoreactivity was present in the ventral portion of the optic stalk, the same region in which the first retinal axons grow. Between E16 and postnatal day 10 (P10), cells positive for laminin were distributed throughout the cross-sectional area of the nerve. There was a progressive appearance of glial fibrillary acidic protein (GFAP) immunoreactivity, a marker for astrocytes, from the optic nerve head towards the chiasm beginning on E20. At the advancing front of GFAP immunoreactivity, cells were positive for both laminin and GFAP. Behind the front, laminin immunoreactivity disappeared from the cells. By P12, the only laminin immunoreactivity that remained within the optic nerve surrounded the vasculature. This is a time after the last retinal axons grow through the optic nerve. Monolayer cell cultures were prepared from perinatal rat optic nerves and processed for immunohistochemistry to determine which astrocyte type was laminin-positive. Type 1 astrocytes, which primarily compose the immature nerve, are GFAP-positive, A2B5-negative, and laminin-positive. Type 2 astrocytes, a major component of the mature optic nerve, were GFAP-positive, A2B5-positive and laminin-negative. An extract of developing optic nerve was analyzed by immunoblot along with laminin purified from Engelbreth-Holm-Swarm (EHS) sarcoma. Purified laminin ran with SDS-PAGE under reducing conditions as 2 bands with Mrs of 200,000 and 4000,000. Both bands reacted with antibodies to laminin. A low-salt extraction of whole optic nerve from E18 rats resulted in 2 bands with the same Mr as seen with laminin from EHS sarcoma. When only the inside of the optic nerve (which lacked the basal lamina and meninges that surround the outside) was processed, there was a dark 200,000 D band, but the 400,000 D band was virtually absent. These results are consistent with the hypothesis that laminin, or a variant form of laminin, serves as a substrate for retinal axon growth in the developing rat optic nerve.