Vesicular organelles in axons of nerve cells are transported along microtubules either toward their plus ends (fast anterograde transport) or toward their minus ends (retrograde transport). Two microtubule-based motors were previously identified by examining plastic beads induced to move along microtubules by cytosol fractions from the squid giant axon: (i) an anterograde motor, kinesin, and (ii) a retrograde motor, which is characterized here. The retrograde motor, a cytosolic protein previously termed HMW1, was purified from optic lobes and extruded axoplasm by nucleotide-dependent microtubule affinity and release; microtubule gliding was used as the assay of motor activity. The following properties of the retrograde motor suggest that it is cytoplasmic dynein: (i) sedimentation at 20-22 S with a heavy chain of Mr greater than 200,000 that coelectrophoreses with the alpha and beta subunits of axonemal dynein, (ii) cleavage by UV irradiation in the presence of ATP and vanadate, and (iii) a molecular structure resembling two-headed dynein from axonemes. Furthermore, bead movement toward the minus end of microtubules was blocked when axoplasmic supernatants were treated with UV/vanadate. Treatment of axoplasmic supernatant with UV/vanadate also blocks the retrograde movement of purified organelles in vitro without changing the number of anterograde moving organelles, indicating that dynein interacts specifically with a subgroup of organelles programmed to move toward the cell body. However, purified optic lobe dynein, like purified kinesin, does not by itself promote the movement of purified organelles along microtubules, suggesting that additional axoplasmic factors are necessary for retrograde as well as anterograde transport.