We have detected the neural cell adhesion molecule, N-CAM, at nerve-muscle contacts in the developing and adult mouse diaphragm. Whereas we found N-CAM staining with fluorescent antibodies consistently to overlap with the pattern of alpha-bungarotoxin staining at nerve-muscle contacts both during development and in the adult, we observed N-CAM staining on the surfaces of developing myofibers and at much lower levels on adult myofibers. Consistent with its function, N-CAM was also detected on axons and axon terminals. Immunoblotting experiments with anti-N-CAM antibodies on detergent extracts of embryonic (E) diaphragm muscle revealed a polydisperse polysialylated N-CAM polypeptide, which in the adult (A) was converted to a discrete form of Mr 140,000; this change, called E-to-A conversion, was previously found to occur in different neural tissues at different rates. The Mr 140,000 component was not recognized by monoclonal antibody anti-N-CAM No. 5, which specifically recognizes antigenic determinants associated with N-linked oligosaccharide determinants on N-CAM from neural tissue. The relative concentration of the Mr 140,000 component prepared from diaphragm muscle increased during fetal development and then decreased sharply to reach adult values. Nevertheless, expression of N-CAM in muscle could be induced after denervation: one week after the sciatic nerve was severed, the relative amount of N-CAM increased dramatically as detected by immunoblots of extracts of whole muscle. Immunofluorescent staining confirmed that there was an increase in N-CAM, both in the cell and at the cell surface; at the same time, however, staining at the motor endplate was diminished. Our findings indicate that, in muscle, in addition to chemical modulation, cell-surface modulation of N-CAM occurs both in amount and distribution during embryogenesis and in response to denervation.