The study of human cardiac tissue development is hampered by the lack of a suitable in vitro model. We describe the phenotypic properties of cardiomyocytes derived from human embryonic stem (ES) cells. Human ES cells were cultivated in suspension and plated to form aggregates termed embryoid bodies (EBs). Spontaneously contracting areas appeared in 8.1% of the EBs. Cells from the spontaneously contracting areas within EBs were stained positively with anti-cardiac myosin heavy chain, anti--alpha-actinin, anti-desmin, anti--cardiac troponin I (anti-cTnI), and anti-ANP antibodies. Electron microscopy revealed varying degrees of myofibrillar organization, consistent with early-stage cardiomyocytes. RT-PCR studies demonstrated the expression of several cardiac-specific genes and transcription factors. Extracellular electrograms were characterized by a sharp component lasting 30 +/- 25 milliseconds, followed by a slow component of 347 +/- 120 milliseconds. Intracellular Ca(2+) transients displayed a sharp rise lasting 130 +/- 27 milliseconds and a relaxation component lasting 200--300 milliseconds. Positive and negative chronotropic effects were induced by application of isoproterenol and carbamylcholine, respectively. In conclusion, the human ES cell--derived cardiomyocytes displayed structural and functional properties of early-stage cardiomyocytes. Establishment of this unique differentiation system may have significant impact on the study of early human cardiac differentiation, functional genomics, pharmacological testing, cell therapy, and tissue engineering.