Signalling by all-trans retinoic acid is mediated through RXR-RAR retinoid receptor heterodimers, in which RXR has been considered to act as a transcriptionally silent partner. However, we show here that in cultured NB4 (ref. 6) human acute promyelocytic leukaemia cells treated with either an RAR-alpha-selective agonist alone, or certain RAR-alpha antagonists in combination with an RXR agonist, receptor-DNA binding is induced in vivo, resulting in expression of the target genes of retinoic acid as well as acute promyelocytic leukaemia protein (PML) relocation to nuclear bodies and differentiation before apoptosis. These results indicate that RAR-alpha ligands can induce two separate events: one enables RXR-RAR-alpha heterodimers to bind to DNA in vivo and allows RXR agonists to act; the other induces transcriptional activity of RAR-alpha. The availability of receptor-specific synthetic retinoids that can induce distinct receptor functions has potential in extending the therapeutic repertoire of retinoids.