The underlying mechanisms of lethal cardiovascular defects associated with the fibronectin-null (FN.null) mutation in mouse embryos were investigated by lineage analysis of myocardial, endocardial, and endothelial cells. A wide variation in phenotype was observed on two genetic backgrounds. In the less severe class (C57/BL6 background), FN.null embryos display a defective heart. Myocardial cells express the specific marker MF-20 and are correctly localized in the anterior trunk region, but myocardial organization is disrupted, resulting in a bulbous heart tube. Endocardial cells express the specific marker platelet-endothelial cell adhesion molecule-1 (PECAM-1) and are localized within the myocardium, but the endocardium appears collapsed. Endothelial cells of two vascular beds are specified, but the aortae are distended and lack contact with the surrounding mesenchyme, while no vessels form in the yolk sac. Defects in the more severe class suggest that FNs are essential earlier in development on the 129/Sv background. Myocardial and endocardial cells are specified, but morphogenesis of the myocardium and endocardium does not occur. Aortic endothelial cells are specified and localized normally, but remain scattered. Yolk sac endothelial cells resemble those of the less severe class. We conclude that FNs are essential for organization of heart and blood vessels, but are dispensable for cellular specification in the appropriate regions within the embryo.