In the developing chick limb bud, retinoic acid (RA) has a striking effect on anteroposterior axis formation, resulting in a duplicated pattern of digits. There is no evidence, however, that RA affects proximodistal axis formation in the developing chick limb bud, although RA induces proximodistal duplication in regenerating amphibian limbs. We describe a series of investigations on the effect of RA on the proximodistal axis in the chick limb bud. A RA-containing bead applied to the anterior margin of the chick limb bud at stage 20 induces the anteroposterior duplication of autopodial structures at the wrist level. We found that the RA-treated tissue has the ability to form more proximal structures. When a tissue graft from the RA- treated anterior region was implanted into a stage 17 wing bud (in which the stylopod is developing in the progress zone), the graft produced a humerus, radius-ulna, and digits. When the graft was implanted into a stage 19 wing bud (in which the zeugopod is developing in the progress zone), a zeugopod and digits were formed. These results were associated with changes in the expression of Hox-A genes in the RA-treated grafts, whose domains were reorganized to be similar to those in host tissues 24 h after grafting. When a small graft of RA-treated tissue was implanted into the apex of a stage 19 wing bud, the cells ware found in the zeugopod and autopod, whereas cells of control fragments were found only in the autopod region. In vitro, distal cells from different stage limb buds are known to segregate from each other. However, RA-treated stage 24 distal cells did not sort out from stage 20 distal cells and mixed homogeneously. These results suggest that RA induces distal cells to adept 'younger' properties which render them susceptible to forming more proximal patterns under the direction of host signals. The effects of RA on proximodistal patterns in developing chick limb buds appear to differ from its effects on proximodistal patterns in regenerating urodele limbs because RA can induce the proximodistal duplication in situ in the regenerating limbs.