Neural cell adhesion molecules (NCAM) was expressed transiently by mesenchymal cells in precartilaginous condensations of the embryonic chicken limb but was lost upon differentiation into cartilage. Consequently, NCAM was present in the periphery of the limb anlagen but was absent in the cartilaginous center of the growing limb. To determine NCAM function in limb bud chondrogenesis we incubated dissociated stage 22/23 distal mesenchymal limb bud cells with Fab' fragments of antibodies to NCAM. Cell aggregation was inhibited by incubating the cells with anti-NCAM Fab'. These results suggest that NCAM may mediate the formation of precartilaginous condensations. This hypothesis was further tested using micromass cultures. NCAM expression in micromass cultures in vitro recapitulated that in vivo. NCAM was enriched in condensations of 2 day cultures, but was diminished and concentrically distributed around cartilage nodules in 4 day cultures. Anti-NCAM Fab' fragments reduced the area occupied by precartilaginous condensations and the degree of chondrogenic differentiation. Control antibody against chicken embryo fibroblasts had no effect. The effect of overexpressing NCAM was analyzed by electroporating expression vectors directing the synthesis of chicken NCAM. Limb bud cells cultured after electroporation with an NCAM expression vector displayed larger cartilage nodules and greater chondrogenic differentiation than cells electroporated with vector alone. The expression of NCAM in electroporated cells also increased. Control experiments using plasmids encoding β-galactosidase indicated that approximately 10% of the limb bud cells were transfected under these conditions. The results suggest that NCAM is involved in the chondrogenesis pathway by mediating the formation of precartilaginous condensations. © 1993 Wiley-Liss, Inc.