N-cadherin, a Ca(2+)-dependent cell adhesion molecule, has been localized previously to the mesoderm during chick gastrulation and to adherens junctions in beating avian hearts. However, a systematic study of the dynamic nature of N-cadherin localization in the critical early stages of heart development is lacking. The presented work defines the changes in the spatial and temporal expression of N-cadherin during early stages of chick heart development, principally between Hamburger and Hamilton stages 5-8, 18-29 hr of development. During gastrulation N-cadherin appears evenly distributed in the heart forming region. As development proceeds to form the pericardial coelom (stages 6, 7, and 8, i.e., between 22 and 26 hr of development) N-cadherin localization becomes restricted to the more central areas of the mesoderm. The localization also shows a periodicity that correlates closely with the distance between foci of cavities that eventually coalesce to form the coelom. This distribution suggests that N-cadherin may have a function in the sorting out of somatic and splanchnic mesoderm cells to form the coelom. This separation of the mesoderm in the embryo for the first time physically delineates the precardiac mesoderm population. Concomitant with cell sorting during coelom formation, the precardiac cells change shape and show a distinct polarity as conveyed by (1) the apical expression of N-cadherin on precardiac cell surfaces lining the pericardial coelom, (2) the primarily lateral expression of Na+,K(+)-ATPase, and (3) an enrichment of integrin (beta 1 subunit) on basal cell surfaces. The somatic mesoderm cells apparently down-regulate N-cadherin expression. N-cadherin is also absent from the precardiac cells close to the endoderm. The latter cells eventually form the endocardium, i.e., the endothelial lining of the heart. By contrast, in the tubular, beating heart N-cadherin is found throughout the myocardium. In summary, immunolocalization patterns of N-cadherin during early cardiogenesis suggest that this cell adhesion molecule has a major role in the dynamics of pericardial coelom formation. Subsequently, its continued expression during cell differentiation of the cardiomyocyte to form the myocardium, but not endocardium, suggests N-cadherin is an essential morphoregulatory molecule in heart organogenesis.