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Anterior endoderm has been proposed to be a specific inducer of cardiac differentiation in vertebrates (reviewed in Jacobson and Sater, Development 104, 341-359, 1988). The ability of cardiogenic mesoderm to differentiate in a minimal culture system was examined using cardiac-specific gene expression as an assay. Anterior lateral plate mesoderm was explanted from chick embryos with and without associated endoderm at developmental stages from just after gastrulation (stage 4; Hamburger and Hamilton, J. Morph. 88, 49-67, 1951) to just prior to contraction (stage 9). At all stages examined, cardiogenic mesoderm expressed a profile of cardiac-specific mRNAs after two days in minimal medium independent of the presence of endoderm. Our studies indicate that endoderm is necessary for the generation of stable sarcomeric protein expression, organized myofibrils and beating tissue from stage 4-6. Subsequent to this stage, an interaction with anterior endoderm is no longer required. Examination of cardia bifida embryos from which anterior endoderm had been unilaterally removed also showed a stage-dependent effect of endoderm on beating, while cardiac gene expression and heart morphogenesis were unaffected. These results demonstrate that anterior endoderm does not induce or maintain cardiac gene expression, nor is it required for terminal differentiation. Endoderm does appear to be necessary for a short period of time between initiation of cardiac gene expression and the onset of contraction.