A method of controlled release that allows the continuous local application of retinoids (vitamin A derivatives) in living tissues has been developed. Several biocompatible 200-microns-diameter polymeric beads have been tested as possible carriers. Each type of bead was loaded by soaking in an isotopically labeled retinoid solution, washed, and then transferred into tissue culture medium for quantitative release measurements. Positively-charged ion-exchange resins of the Dowex 1 type were found to be the most suitable for the controlled release of retinoic acid, a negatively charged compound. For the controlled release of uncharged retinoids such as retinyl acetate, uncharged acrylic ester polymer beads are preferred; these beads can also be used to release the negatively charged compounds retinoic acid and prostaglandin E1. In all cases, a prolonged release is obtained that persists for more than a day. During this interval, the release is diffusion-controlled, and the total amount of compound released is directly proportional to the amount of the compound that the bead is exposed to during the initial loading step. High-performance liquid chromatography has been used to analyze the nature of the released retinoid. When the positively charged beads are loaded with all-trans-retinoic acid, there is a time-dependent decrease in the proportion of the all-trans isomer released which is due to an increased release of two cis isomers. This isomerization reaction occurs at a considerably slower rate when the uncharged beads are used as carriers. To mimic the conditions under which the local release of retinoic acid causes striking pattern duplications in developing chick wings, beads loaded with isotopically labeled retinoids were manually implanted into a slit cut into wing buds of stage-20 chick embryos. The release rate obtained was comparable to that found in vitro, and a time-dependent accumulation of the released radioactive compound was measured that was confined to the tissue near the site of implantation. All of the beads tested were readily accommodated by the tissue and could be easily removed at any time to terminate the treatment. It is believed that the controlled release of chemicals from such tiny biocompatible implants has a wide potential range of applications in biology.