Background. Meiosis in higher vertebrates shows a dramatic sexual dimorphism: germ cells enter meiosis and arrest at prophase I during embryogenesis in females, whereas in males they enter mitotic arrest during embryogenesis and enter meiosis only after birth. Here we report the molecular analysis of meiosis onset in the chicken model and provide evidence for conserved regulation by retinoic acid. Results. Meiosis in the chicken embryo is initiated late in embryogenesis (day 15.5), relative to gonadal sex differentiation (from day 6). Meiotic germ cells are first detectable only in female gonads from day 15.5, correlating with the expression of the meiosis marker, SCP3. Gonads isolated from day 10.5 female embryos and grown in serum-free medium could still initiate meiosis at day 16.5, suggesting that this process is controlled by an endogenous clock in the germ cells themselves, and/or that germ cells are already committed to meiosis at the time of explantation. Early commitment is supported by the analysis of chicken STRA8, a pre-meiotic marker shown to be essential for meiosis in mouse. Chicken STRA8 is expressed female-specifically from embryonic day 12.5, preceding morphological evidence of meiosis at day 15.5. Previous studies have shown that, in the mouse embryo, female-specific induction of STRA8 and meiosis are triggered by retinoic acid. A comprehensive analysis of genes regulating retinoic acid metabolism in chicken embryos reveals dynamic expression in the gonads. In particular, the retinoic acid-synthesising enzyme, RALDH2, is expressed in the left ovarian cortex at the time of STRA8 up-regulation, prior to meiosis. Conclusion. This study presents the first molecular analysis of meiosis onset in an avian embryo. Although aspects of avian meiosis differ from that of mammals, a role for retinoic acid may be conserved.