Decorin, a proteoglycan, interacts with extracellular matrix proteins, growth factors and receptors. Decorin expression and spatio-temporal distribution were studied by RT-PCR and immunofluorescence, while decorin function was examined by blocking antibodies in the early chick embryo. Decorin was first detectable at stage XIII (late blastula). During gastrulation (stage HH3-4), decorin fluorescence was intense in epiblast cells immediately adjacent to the streak, and in migrating cells. Decorin fluorescence was intense in endoderm and strong at mesoderm-neural plate surfaces at stage HH5-6 (neurula). At stage HH10-11 (12 somites), decorin fluorescence was intense in myelencephalon and then showed distinct expression patterns along the myelencephalon axes by stage HH17. Decorin fluorescence was intense in neural crest cells, dorsal aorta, heart, somite and neuroepithelial cells apposing the somite, nephrotome, gut and in pancreatic and liver primordia. Antibody-mediated inhibition of decorin function affected the head-to-tail embryonic axis extension, indicating that decorin is essential for convergent extension cell movements during avian gastrulation. Decorin was also essential for retinal progenitor cell polarization, neural crest migration, somite boundary formation and cell polarization, mesenchymal cell polarization and primary endoderm displacement to the embryo periphery. The embryonic blood vessels were deformed, the dorsal mesocardium was thinned and the cardiac jelly was abnormally thickened in the heart. Decorin is known to modulate collagen fibrillogenesis, a key mechanism of matrix assembly, and cell proliferation. Decorin also appears to be essential for the coordination of cell and tissue polarization, which is an important feature in organ patterning of the embryo.