Determination of the molecules that regulate astrocyte development has been hindered by the paucity of markers that identify astrocytic precursors in vivo. Here we report that the chondroitin sulfate proteoglycan aggrecan both regulates astrocyte development and is expressed by embryonic glial precursors. During chick brain development, the onset of aggrecan expression precedes that of the astrocytic marker GFAP and is concomitant with detection of the early glial markers GLAST and glutamine synthetase. In co-expression studies, we established that aggrecan-rich cells contain the radial glial markers nestin, BLBP and GLAST and later in embryogenesis, the astroglial marker GFAP. Parallel in vitro studies showed that ventricular zone cultures, enriched in aggrecan-expressing cells, could be directed to a GFAP-positive fate in G5-supplemented differentiation media. Analysis of the chick aggrecan mutant nanomelia revealed marked increases in the expression of the astrocyte differentiation genes GFAP, GLAST and GS in the absence of extracellular aggrecan. These increases in astrocytic marker gene expression could not be accounted for by changes in precursor proliferation or cell death, suggesting that aggrecan regulates the rate of astrocyte differentiation. Taken together, these results indicate a major role for aggrecan in the control of glial cell maturation during brain development.