Homeobox genes are important in the regulation of outgrowth and pattern formation during limb development. It is likely that homeobox genes play an equally important role during limb regeneration. We have isolated and identified 17 different homeobox-containing genes expressed by cells of regenerating axolotl limbs. Of these, nearly half of the clones represent genes belonging to the HoxA complex, which are thought to be involved in pattern formation along the proximal-distal limb axis. In this paper we report on the expression patterns of two 5' members of this complex, HoxA13 and HoxA9. These genes are expressed in cells of developing limb buds and regenerating blastemas. The pattern of expression in developing axolotl limb buds is comparable to that in mouse and chick limb buds; the expression domain of HoxA13 is more distally restricted than that of HoxA9. As in developing mouse and chick limbs, HoxA13 likely functions in the specification of distal limb structures, and HoxA9 in the specification of more proximal structures. In contrast, during regeneration, HoxA13 and HoxA9 do not follow the rule of spatial colinearity observed in developing limbs. Instead, both genes are initially expressed in the same population of stump cells, giving them a distal Hox code regardless of the level of amputation. In addition, both are reexpressed within 24 hours after amputation, suggesting that reexpression may be synchronous rather than temporally colinear. Treatment with retinoic acid alters this Hox code to that of a more proximal region by the rapid and differential downregulation of HoxA13, at the same time that expression of HoxA9 is unaffected. HoxA reexpression occurs prior to blastema formation, 24-48 hours after amputation, and is an early molecular marker for dedifferentiation.