The subplate is a transient zone of the developing cerebral cortex through which postmitotic neurons migrate and growing axons elongate en route to their adult positions within the cortical plate. To learn more about the cellular interactions that occur in this zone, we have examined whether fibronectins (FNs), a family of molecules known to promote migration and elongation in other systems, are present during the fetal and postnatal development of the cat's cerebral cortex. Three different anti-FN antisera recognized a single broad band with an apparent molecular mass of 200-250 kD in antigen-transfer analyses (reducing conditions) of plasma-depleted (perfused) whole fetal brain or synaptosome preparations, indicating that FNs are present at these ages. This band can be detected as early as 1 mo before birth at embryonic day 39. Immunohistochemical examination of the developing cerebral cortex from animals between embryonic day 46 and postnatal day 7 using any of the three antisera revealed that FN-like immunoreactivity is restricted to the subplate and the marginal zones, and is not found in the cortical plate. As these zones mature into their adult counterparts (the white matter and layer 1 of the cerebral cortex), immunostaining gradually disappears and is not detectable by postnatal day 70. Previous studies have shown that the subplate and marginal zones contain a special, transient population of neurons (Chun, J. J. M., M. J. Nakamura, and C. J. Shatz. 1987. Nature (Lond.). 325:617-620). The FN-like immunostaining in the subplate and marginal zone is closely associated with these neurons, and some of the immunostaining delineates them. Moreover, the postnatal disappearance of FN-like immunostaining from the subplate is correlated spatially and temporally with the disappearance of the subplate neurons. When subplate neurons are killed by neurotoxins, FN-like immunostaining is depleted in the lesioned area. These observations show that an FN-like molecule is present transiently in the subplate of the developing cerebral cortex and, further, is spatially and temporally correlated with the transient subplate neurons. The presence of FNs within this zone, but not in the cortical plate, suggests that the extracellular milieu of the subplate mediates a unique set of interactions required for the development of the cerebral cortex.