The mammalian organ of Corti has one of the most highly ordered patterns of cells in any vertebrate sensory epithelium. A single row of inner hair cells and three or four rows of outer hair cells extend along its length. The factors that regulate the formation of this strict pattern are unknown. In order to determine whether retinoic acid plays a role during the development of the organ of Corti, exogenous retinoic acid was added to embryonic mouse cochleae in vitro. Exogenous retinoic acid significantly increased the number of cells that developed as hair cells and resulted in large regions of supernumerary hair cells and supporting cells containing two rows of inner hair cells and up to 11 rows of outer hair cells. The effects of retinoic acid were dependent on concentration and on the timing of its addition. Western blot analysis indicated that cellular retinoic acid binding protein (CRABP) was present in the sensory epithelium of the embryonic cochlea. The amount of CRABP apparently increased between embryonic day 14 and postnatal day 1, but CRABP was not detectable in sensory epithelia from adults. A retinoic acid reporter cell line was used to demonstrate that retinoic acid was also present in the developing organ of Corti between embryonic day 14 and postnatal day 1, and was also present in adult cochleae at least in the vicinity of the modiolus. These results suggest that retinoic acid is involved in the normal development of the organ of Corti and that the effect of retinoic acid may be to induce a population of prosensory cells to become competent to differentiate as hair cells and supporting cells.