The neural cell adhesion molecule, N-CAM, appears on early embryonic cells and is important in the formation of cell collectives and their boundaries at sites of morphogenesis. Later in development it is found on various differentiated tissues and is a major CAM mediating adhesion among neurons and between neurons and muscle. To provide a molecular basis for understanding N-CAM function, the complete amino acid sequences of the three major polypeptides of N-CAM and most of the noncoding sequences of their messenger RNA's were determined from the analysis of complementary DNA clones and were verified by amino acid sequences of selected CNBr fragments and proteolytic fragments. The extracellular region of each N-CAM polypeptide includes five contiguous segments that are homologous in sequence to each other and to members of the immunoglobulin superfamily, suggesting that interactions among immunoglobulin-like domains form the basis for N-CAM homophilic binding. Although different in their membrane-associated and cytoplasmic domains, the amino acid sequences of the three polypeptides appear to be identical throughout this extracellular region (682 amino acids) where the binding site is located. Variations in N-CAM activity thus do not occur by changes in the amino acid sequence that alter the specificity of binding. Instead, regulation is achieved by cell surface modulation events that alter N-CAM affinity, prevalence, mobility, and distribution on the surface. A major mechanism for modulation is alternative RNA splicing resulting in N-CAM's with different cytoplasmic domains that differentially interact with the cell membrane. Such regulatory mechanisms may link N-CAM binding function with other primary cellular processes during the embryonic development of pattern.