Growth and guidance behavior of Xenopus embryonic (ER) (optic vesicle stage 25/26) and regenerating retinal fibers (stage 47/50 newly regenerating NR, and actively regenerating RR, respectively) have been studied in vitro on a variety of substrates in serum-free media. RR retinas receive a prior conditioning lesion 12-14 days before explantation while NR retinas are explanted immediately after axotomy. The substrates include plastic (UN), polylysine (PL), polyornithine (PO), laminin (LM), fibronectin (FN), and collagen type I (CO). Two kinds of experimental situations were tested, one in which substrates were derivatized to plastic as a planar surface, while the second involved the addition of a substrate as a soluble supplement to dishes derivatized with PL. A neurite growth index (NGI), based on density of neurite outgrowth and axon lengths, is determined for each fiber type on all substrates. Embryonic and regenerating fibers are phenotypically different fiber types; each displays a specific "substrate preference profile" (SPP), reflecting differential growth on each substrate. ER neurites grow equally well on all planar substrates, including plastic, but do not grow on CO (SPP, LM = FN = PL = PO = UN greater than CO). Both NR and RR neurites show distinct substrate preferences, but RR neurites grow more vigorously (SPP, LM greater than CO greater than PL = PO greater than FN). In media supplemented with LM, FN or CO, the SPPs showed little change but the neurite bundle patterns were qualitatively different. Only regenerating neurites display clockwise growth in laminin (LM) and fibronectin (FN)-supplemented media. Under no conditions do embryonic fibers exhibit this pattern which suggests that embryonic and regenerating retinal fibers also differ in cytoskeletal organization. Evidence of intrinsic growth differences in vitro suggest that embryonic and regenerating retinal fibers may not respond to identical guidance cues during in vivo development and regeneration of retinotectal connections.