The 43-kD growth-associated protein (GAP-43) is a major protein kinase C (PKC) substrate of growing axons, and of developing nerve terminals and glial cells. It is a highly hydrophilic protein associated with the cortical cytoskeleton and membranes. In neurons it is rapidly transported from the cell body to growth cones and nerve terminals, where it accumulates. To define the role of GAP-43 in neurite outgrowth, we analyzed neurite regeneration in cultured dorsal root ganglia (DRG) neurons that had been depleted of GAP-43 with any of three nonoverlapping antisense oligonucleotides. The GAP-43 depletion procedure was specific for this protein and an antisense oligonucleotide to the related PKC substrate MARCKS did not detectably affect GAP-43 immunoreactivity. We report that neurite outgrowth and morphology depended on the levels of GAP-43 in the neurons in a substrate-specific manner. When grown on a laminin substratum, GAP-43- depleted neurons extended longer, thinner and less branched neurites with strikingly smaller growth cones than their GAP-43-expressing counterparts. In contrast, suppression of GAP-43 expression prevented growth cone and neurite formation when DRG neurons were plated on poly- L-ornithine. These findings indicate that GAP-43 plays an important role in growth cone formation and neurite outgrowth. It may be involved in the potentiation of growth cone responses to external signals affecting process formation and guidance.