Although the bone morphogenetic proteins stimulate chondrogenesis, little is known regarding their expression and regulation in growth-plate chondrocytes. The expression of bone morphogenetic protein-7 was examined in chick growth-plate chondrocyte cultures. Low basal levels of bone morphogenetic protein-7 mRNA and protein expression were stimulated by increasing doses of all-trans retinoic acid, a metabolite of vitamin A. The addition of 10 μM retinoic acid resulted in approximately a 6-fold increase in bone morphogenetic protein-7 mRNA levels. In contrast, other growth regulators, including basic fibroblast growth factor, transforming growth factor-β, vitamin D, bone morphogenetic protein-6, bone morphogenetic protein-7, and parathyroid hormone-related peptide, did not alter bone morphogenetic protein-7 transcript levels. The increase in bone morphogenetic protein-7 transcripts, although present at 6 hours, was maximal following a 12-hour exposure to retinoic acid. Retinoic acid induction of bone morphogenetic protein-7 transcript levels was dependent on protein synthesis because the induction could be blocked by cyclohexamide. In maturationally distinct subpopulations of chondrocytes separated by countercurrent centrifugal elutriation, retinoic acid markedly induced bone morphogenetic protein-7 mRNA levels in the least differentiated chondrocytes but had no effect in the most terminally differentiated hypertrophic chondrocytes. Immunohistochemical localization of bone morphogenetic protein-7 demonstrates its expression throughout the developing and adolescent growth plate consistent with the constitutive pattern of expression seen in isolated chondrocytes. The addition of exogenous bone morphogenetic protein-7 to chondrocyte cultures stimulated maturation in undifferentiated chondrocyte populations. The data support a role for bone morphogenetic protein-7 as an autocrine regulator of chondrocyte maturation in the growth plate. Regulation of bone morphogenetic protein-7 by retinoic acid may be important in normal growth and development as well as in pathologic conditions of an excess or deficiency of vitamin A.