The retinoic acid receptors (RARs) transduce retinoid dependant gene regulation, and many biological effects of retinoids are mediated through binding and activation of three closely related receptor subtypes (RAR alpha, RAR beta, and RAR gamma). In order to investigate the role of receptor subtypes, we have carried out a chemical synthesis program to seek selective retinoids for these receptors. We measured receptor binding affinity using recombinant RAR alpha, -beta, and -gamma proteins and assessed cellular differentiating activity in F9 murine teratocarcinoma cells (F9 cells). This research has identified the 4-substituted-3-(1-adamantyl)phenyl moiety as a new pharmacophore which can replace the beta-cyclogeranylidene ring of the naturally occurring all-trans-retinoic acid. Two chemical series derived from the general structures 6-(3-tertioalkylphenyl)-2-naphthoic acid (series I) and 4-[(E)-2-(3-tertioalkylphenyl)propenyl]benzoic acid (series II) were developed. In particular, we have obtained the RAR gamma selective derivatives 6-[3-(1-adamantyl)-4-hydroxyphenyl]-2-naphthoic acid (7) [Ki(RAR alpha) = 6500 nM, Ki(RAR beta) = 2480 nM, Ki(RAR gamma) = 77 nM] and 4-[(E)-2-[3-(1-adamantyl)-4-hydroxyphenyl]propenyl]benzoic acid (19) [Ki(RAR alpha) = 1,144 nM, Ki(RAR beta) = 1245 nM, Ki(RAR gamma) = 53 nM]. In series I, the presence of a phenol group, irrespective of the nature of tertioalkyl group, imparted at least partial RAR gamma selectivity, whereas in series II, the presence of both adamantyl and phenol groups is needed to confer RAR gamma selectivity. The RAR gamma selective ligands induce differentiation in F9 cells (7, AC50 = 33 nM; 19, AC50 = 66 nM). From series I, a mixed RAR beta-gamma agonist with potent cellular differentiating activity was selected for development as a topical antiacne agent, 6-[3-(1-adamantyl)-4-methoxyphenyl]-2-naphthoic acid (5, CD 271) [Ki(RAR alpha) = 1100 nM, Ki-(RAR beta) = 34 nM, Ki(RAR gamma) = 130 nM, AC50(F9) = 37 nM]. Finally, from series II, we have obtained a weak antagonist in the F9 cellular differentiation assay, 4-[(E)-2-(3-tert-butyl-4-hydroxyphenyl)propenyl]benzoic acid (15, IC50 = 700 nM).