Neuronal growth cones, the sensory-motile structures at the tips of developing axons, navigate to their targets over distances that can be many times greater than their diameter. They may accomplish this impressive task by following spatial gradients of axon guidance molecules in their environment (Bonhoeffer & Gierer, 1984; Tessier-Lavigne & Placzek, 1991; Baier & Bonhoeffer, 1994). We calculate the optimal shape of a gradient and the distance over which it can be detected by a growth cone for two competing mechanistic models of axon guidance. The results are surprisingly simple: Regardless of the mechanism, the maximum distance is about 1 cm. Since gradients and growth cones have coevolved, we suggest that the shape of the gradient in situ will predict the mechanism of gradient detection. In addition, we show that the experimentally determined dissociation constants for receptor-ligand complexes implicated in axon guidance are about optimal with respect to maximizing guidance distance. The relevance of these results to the retinotectal system is discussed.

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