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Isotretinoin is a potent retinoic acid used in the treatment of skin disorders. Though very effective, it is teratogenic if administered during pregnancy, and its teratogenic effect may be related to the normal activity of retinoids as signalling molecules in the embryo. Although its exact mechanism of action is unknown, it has been suggested that it causes its characteristic pattern of defects that includes heart defects, by inhibiting the migration of neural crest cells. However, other effects on cells are known. We studied early cardiac cell proliferation using incorporation of bromodeoxyuridine (BrdU) and detection with a monoclonal anti-BrdU. Proliferation in heart tissue of whole embryo cultures was inhibited in medium with 10(-6) M isotretinoin to 62% of the control level in myocardium. We studied its effects in culture on precardiac explant development in the absence of the neural crests. Culture of precardiac mesodermal-endodermal explants revealed that development of heart vesicles from the mesoderm was little affected, but the development of heartbeat was inhibited depending on dose in the 10(-5) to 10(-7) M range. The effect on development of contractions was augmented in the presence of serum; it could be duplicated by all-trans-retinoic acid, and it was reversible. Synthesis of the alpha-actin isotype, analyzed by isoelectric focusing, was found to be inhibited or delayed. The results suggest multiple effects of retinoids on growth, morphogenesis, and differentiation of early cardiac tissue, and are discussed in relation to the potential role of retinoids in early embryogenesis.