The spatiotemporal pattern of expression of the neural cell adhesion molecule NCAM was mapped immunohistochemically in embryos of the frog Xenopus, from blastula to early swimming stages, using a polyclonal antibody that recognizes Xenopus NCAM. The neural plate stage was the earliest at which NCAM could be detected. The initial sites of NCAM immunoreactivity were neural ectoderm, somitic mesoderm, and chordamesoderm. During formation of the neural tube, NCAM immunoreactivity became restricted to the neuroectoderm and its derivatives. During closure of the neural tube and for 2-4 hr thereafter, NCAM was expressed in a distinctive radial pattern in coronal sections of the neural tube. NCAM was observed in neural crest cells before migration and after formation of cranial and spinal ganglia. During the period of initial neurite outgrowth, NCAM became concentrated in the developing central nerve fiber pathways. NCAM was seen on peripheral nerves from the time of their initial outgrowth and it was strongly expressed at neuromuscular junctions during the period of their formation. These results show that NCAM is expressed after neural induction and functions during morphogenesis of the neural plate and tube, some neural crest derivatives, development of nerve fiber tracts, and formation of neuromuscular connections.