The Patch (Ph) mutation in mice is a deletion of the gene encoding the platelet-derived growth factor receptor alpha subunit (PDGFR alpha). Patch is a recessive lethal recognized in heterozygotes by its effect on the pattern of neural crest-derived pigment cells, and in homozygous mutant embryos by visible defects in craniofacial structures. Since both pigment cells and craniofacial structures are derived from the neural crest, we have examined the differentiation of other crest cell-derived structures in Ph/Ph mutants to assess which crest cell populations are adversely affected by this mutation. Defects were found in many structures populated by non-neuronal derivatives of cranial crest cells including the thymus, the outflow tract of the heart, cornea, and teeth. In contrast, crest-derived neurons in both the head and trunk appeared normal. The expression pattern of PDGFR alpha mRNA was determined in normal embryos and was compared with the defects present in Ph/Ph embryos. PDGFR alpha mRNA was expressed at high levels in the non-neuronal derivatives of the cranial neural crest but was not detected in the crest cell neuronal derivatives. These results suggest that functional PDGF alpha is required for the normal development of many non-neuronal crest-derived structures but not for the development of crest-derived neuronal structures. Abnormal development of the non-neuronal crest cells in Ph/Ph embryos was also correlated with an increase in the diameter of the proteoglycan-containing granules within the crest cell migratory spaces. This change in matrix structure was observed both before and after crest cells had entered these spaces. Taken together, these observations suggest that functional PDGFR alpha can affect crest development both directly, by acting as a cell growth and/or survival stimulus for populations of non-neurogenic crest cells, and indirectly, by affecting the structure of the matrix environment through which such cells move.