The chicken mutant talpid3 (ta3) has polydactylous limbs with up to 7–8 morphologically similar digits. This lack of antero–posterior polarity in digit pattern is correlated with symmetrical expression of genes of the HoxD complex. We determined the distribution of polarizing activity in limb buds of the chick mutant ta3 by assessing the ability of mesenchyme from various positions along the antero-posterior axis to induce digit duplications when grafted anteriorly into a normal limb. Cells with highest polarizing activity were found at the posterior margin of the wing as in the polarizing region of normal limb buds. However, in contrast to normal limb buds, ta3 anterior mesenchyme also had low polarizing activity. Application of retinoic acid or a polarizing region graft to the anterior of ta3 limb buds changed digit morphology but did not induce digit duplications or digits with any characteristic a–p pattern. To determine which genes are associated with polarizing activity and which are associated with patterning of the digits, we examined expression of the genes Sonic hedgehog (shh), Bmp-2, and Bmp-7, whose expression is normally confined to the posterior margin of the early wing bud and is associated with the polarizing region. In addition, we determined the distribution of Fgf-4 transcripts which in normal limb buds are restricted to the posterior part of the apical ectodermal ridge. In ta3 limb buds, shh expression is restricted to the posterior limb mesenchyme, which has high polarizing activity, but is not expressed in regions which have low polarizing activity. In contrast, Bmp-2 and Bmp-7 are expressed uniformly along the a–p axis. Fgf-4 transcripts are present throughout the apical ectodermal ridge in ta3 limb buds. In the ta3 mutant, there is both an abnormal distribution of signalling activity and response to polarizing signals. In addition, the dissociation between the expression of shh and Bmps suggests distinct roles for the encoded molecules in signalling and response in a–p patterning of limb buds. ©1995 Wiley-Liss, Inc.