The generation and analysis of insertional mutations that perturb early postimplantation development provide a means to identify genes required at this stage of embryogenesis. We have been studying two independently generated insertional mutations termed 413.d and H beta 58 that result in early postimplantation lethality. Each mutation is associated with a distinct phenotype. 413.d mutant embryos become profoundly abnormal around the time of gastrulation: no identifiable embryonic axis or mesodermal structures are formed. H beta 58 mutant embryos proceed further in development, forming a relatively normal anteroposterior axis before developmental arrest occurs. We isolated embryonic stem cell lines homozygous for each of these mutations and assessed their differentiation abilities and developmental potential in vitro and after their introduction into wild-type blastocysts. From these studies we conclude that the 413.d mutation acts in a non-cell-autonomous fashion: mutant cells appear capable of participating, in conjunction with wild-type cells, in the formation of derivatives of all three primary cell lineages of the embryo. H beta 58 mutant embryonic stem cells are clearly pluripotent but they appear to be more restricted in their developmental potential, suggesting that the H beta 58 gene product may be required by specific tissues of the embryo.