An aldehyde dehydrogenase present at high levels in the dorsal retina of the embryonic and adult mouse was identified as the isoform AHD-2 known to oxidize retinaldehyde to retinoic acid. Comparative estimates of retinoic acid levels with a reporter cell line placed the retinas among the richest tissues in the entire body of the early embryo; levels in ventral retina, however, exceeded dorsal levels. Retinoic acid synthesis from retinaldehyde in the dorsal pathway was less effective than the ventral pathway at low substrate levels and more effective at high levels. The dorsal pathway was preferentially inhibited by disulfiram, while ventral synthesis was preferentially inhibited by p-hydroxymercuribenzoate. When protein fractions separated by isoelectric focusing were analyzed for retinoic acid synthesizing capacity by a zymography-bioassay, most of the synthesis in dorsal retina was found to be mediated by AHD-2, and ventral synthesis was mediated by dehydrogenase activities distinct in charge from AHD-2. Postnatally, levels of highest retinoic acid synthesis shifted from ventral to dorsal retina. In the adult retina, the dorsal pathway persisted, but the preferential ventral pathway was no longer detectable. Our observations raise the possibility that retinoic acid plays a role in the determination and maintenance of the dorsoventral axis of the retina, and that the morphogenetically significant asymmetry here lies in the spatial arrangement of synthetic pathways.