The ability of axons to grow through tissue in vivo during development or regeneration may be regulated by the availability of specific neurite-promoting macromolecules located within the extracellular matrix. We have used tissue culture methods to examine the relative ability of various extracellular matrix components to elicit neurite outgrowth from dissociated chick embryo parasympathetic (ciliary ganglion) neurons in serum-free monolayer culture. Purified laminin from both mouse and rat sources, as well as a partially purified polyornithine-binding neurite promoting factor (PNPF-1) from rat Schwannoma cells all stimulate neurite production from these neurons. Laminin and PNPF-1 are also potent stimulators of neurite growth from cultured neurons obtained from other peripheral as well as central neural tissues, specifically avian sympathetic and sensory ganglia and spinal cord, optic tectum, neural retina, and telencephalon, as well as from sensory ganglia of the neonatal mouse and hippocampal, septal, and striatal tissues of the fetal rat. A quantitative in vitro bioassay method using ciliary neurons was used to (a) measure and compare the specific neurite-promoting activities of these agents, (b) confirm that during the purification of laminin, the neurite-promoting activity co- purifies with the laminin protein, and (c) compare the influences of antilaminin antibodies on the neurite-promoting activity of laminin and PNPF-1. We conclude that laminin and PNPF-1 are distinct macromolecules capable of expressing their neurite-promoting activities even when presented in nanogram amounts. This neurite-promoting bioassay currently represents the most sensitive test for the biological activity of laminin.