We have examined the possibility that proteases such as plasminogen activator (PA) contribute to the extraordinary motile capability of neural crest cells. We show that trunk neural crest cells that migrate from isolated neural tubes in vitro produce PA and that the level of cell-associated PA increases dramatically after 8 days in culture. This increase is not the result of differentiation or time in culture, because neural crest cell clusters that form on top of the neural tube and differentiate into pigment cells but are immotile produce very low levels of PA. If these clusters are removed from the neural tube and replated on a plastic substratum where they migrate, the level of PA associated with the cells increases dramatically, suggesting that PA production is associated with motility. Inhibitors of PA/plasmin activity significantly reduce neural crest cell motility in vitro, further supporting the idea that proteases are important in neural crest cell migration.