We have previously demonstrated that the growth of peripheral nervous system axons is strongly attracted towards limb buds and skin explants in vitro. Here, we show that directed axonal growth towards skin explants of Xenopus laevis in matrigel is associated with expression of matrix metalloproteinase (MMP)-18 and also other MMPs, and that this long-range neurotropic activity is inhibited by the broad-spectrum MMP inhibitors BB-94 and GM6001. We also show that forced expression of MMP-18 in COS-7 cell aggregates enhances axonal growth from Xenopus dorsal root ganglia explants. Nidogen is the target of MMPs released by cultured skin in matrigel, whereas other components remain intact. Our results suggest a novel link between MMP activity and extracellular matrix breakdown in the control of axonal growth.