Cells in the cerebral cortex project to many distant regions in the brain. Each cortical target receives input from a specific population of cells which have a characteristic morphology and which are located in a distinct cortical layer. In an attempt to learn about the mechanisms by which this stereotypic output pattern is generated during development, we have studied the formation of cortical projections in an in vitro system. Slices from developing rat visual cortex were cocultured with slices from the superior colliculus, the major target of cells in layer 5, and the lateral geniculate nucleus, the major target of cells in layer 6. Cortical neurons which established connections with tectal and thalamic explants were retrogradely labelled with fluorescent dyes. It was found that, in vitro, different populations of neurons project to these two targets, and that the laminar position and cellular morphology of the projecting cells were similar to their in vivo counterparts. These specific connections were established when the target explants were placed either next to the white matter or next to the pial side of cortical slice cultures. The axons of cells projecting to ectopic positioned explants reoriented their trajectories and grew through the cortical grey matter directly towards their targets. Thus subcortical targets exert an orienting effect specifically on their innervating cells and attract growing axons of the appropriate cells at a distance. These results suggest that different targets release different molecules that act selectively on specific populations of neurons. Therefore, chemotropic guidance is likely to play a significant role in the development of specific connections between cortical neurons and their target areas.