Fibroblast growth factors (FGFs) are expressed in the developing embryo and are postulated to regulate embryonic and vascular growth. The goal of this study was to elucidate the role of basic fibroblast growth factor (FGF-2) in early murine embryonic cardiovascular development in the mouse embryo. Gestation day 7.5 embryos were harvested and placed in culture, and 12 hr later replication-defective adenovirus (0.5 x 10(6) plaque forming units) encoding either beta-galactosidase or antisense FGF-2 RNA was injected into the sinus venosus of the cultured embryos. Embryos receiving only replication-defective adenovirus expressing the beta-galactosidase gene continued to develop normally over the next 12 hr. In contrast, those receiving adenovirus encoding antisense FGF-2 RNA displayed marked morphogenetic abnormalities, including cessation of growth and abnormal yolk sac vascular development, even though the embryonic hearts continued to beat. Abnormal development of the yolk sac vasculature was confirmed by microangiography and by histologic examination. Coinjection of virus carrying FGF-2 cDNA in the sense orientation reversed the effects of antisense FGF-2 RNA expression. These results confirm the efficacy of the replication-defective adenovirus for targeting gene expression to the developing vasculature and provide evidence for a critical role of FGF in the normal vascular assembly in the early embryo. Cessation of embryonic growth on expression of antisense FGF-2 RNA was most likely attributable to failure of efficient circulation of the early embryonic blood cells from the yolk sac into the embryo.