Video microscopy of isolated axoplasm from the squid giant axon permits correlated quantitative analyses of membrane-bounded organelle transport both in the intact axoplasm and along individual microtubules. As a result, the effects of experimental manipulations on both anterograde and retrograde movements of membrane-bounded organelles can be evaluated under nearly physiological conditions. Since anterograde and retrograde fast axonal transport are similar but distinct cellular processes, a systematic biochemical analysis is important for a further understanding of the molecular mechanisms for each. In this series of experiments, we employed isolated axoplasm of the squid to define the nucleoside triphosphate specificity for bidirectional organelle motility in the axon. Perfusion of axoplasm with 2-20 mM ATP preserved optimal vesicle velocities in both the anterograde and retrograde directions. Organelle velocities decreased to less than 50% of optimal values when the axoplasm was perfused with 10-20 mM UTP, GTP, ITP, or CTP with simultaneous depletion of endogenous ATP with hexokinase. Under the same conditions, TTP and ATP-gamma-S were unable to support significant levels of transport. None of the NTPs tested had a differential effect on anterograde vs. retrograde movement of vesicles. Surprisingly, several inconsistencies were revealed when a comparison was made between these results and nucleoside triphosphate specificities that have been reported for putative organelle motors by using in vitro assays. These data may be used in conjunction with data from well-defined in vitro assays to develop models for the molecular mechanisms of axonal transport.