The presynaptic terminal and axon of neurons can undergo structural changes in response to environmental signals. Since these changes require protein synthesis in the cell body, the needs of the periphery must somehow be communicated to the cell soma. To look for such a mechanism, we used artificial protein constructs with properties expected of a signal that is transported from the axon to the nucleus. One construct consisted of the nuclear import signal peptide (sp) of the SV40 large T antigen, coupled to human serum albumin (HSA) and rhodamine (r). When injected into the axoplasm of Aplysia californica neurons in vitro, the rHSA-sp was transported in the retrograde direction through the axon to the cell body and then into the nucleus. Little, if any, moved in the anterograde direction toward growth cones. The retrograde movement of injected rHSA-sp was rapid (greater than 25 mm/d) and depended upon intact microtubules. The sp portion of rHSA-sp provided access to both the retrograde transport system and the nuclear import apparatus. Thus, rHSA was not transported at all, but accumulated in organelles near the injection site. Also, rHSA-sp containing an sp with a Lys to Thr substitution, which is known to reduce nuclear import markedly, was transported only poorly. To look for endogenous molecules that use this system, we affinity-purified a rabbit polyclonal antibody to the signal sequence. The antibody recognized an 83 kDa polypeptide on Western blots of Aplysia nervous tissue. These data indicate that Aplysia neurons contain the machinery to convey macromolecules from the axon periphery to the nucleus.