Both L1 and N-CAM are present on optic axons early in the developing mouse retina and optic nerve. In in vitro assays on substrates of purified cell adhesion molecules cells derived from E13 mouse retinae showed vigorous neurite extension on L1 but not on N-CAM. Although retinal neurons on N-CAM showed only limited attachment to the substrate, they were able to form lamellipodia immediately around the cell perimeter. In contrast, similarly derived cortical cells showed extensive neurite outgrowth on both substrates. Under these culture conditions, nearly all of the L1 and N-CAM present in the cell membrane appeared to be sequestered on the lower surface of the growth cones and neurites, indicating that most of these cell adhesion molecules were involved in homophilic interactions. Our results suggest differential roles for L1 and N-CAM in intitiation and establishment of the optic pathway. © 1994 John Wiley & Sons, Inc.