Chimeric or entirely embryonic stem (ES) cell-derived mice ("ES mice") can be produced by injecting ES cells into diploid (2n) or tetraploid (4n) host blastocysts, respectively. Usually, between 10 and 15 ES cells are injected into the host blastocyst, but it is not clear how many of the injected cells contribute to the somatic lineages, thus serve as "founder cells" of the embryo proper. We have used genetically labeled ES cells to retrospectively determine the number of founder ES cells that generate the somatic lineages of chimeric and of ES mice. ES cell clones individually labeled with provirus were mixed in equal numbers and injected into 2n or 4n blastocysts to generate chimeric or ES mice. Southern analysis of DNA from the resulting animals indicated that the somatic lineages were most often derived from one or two and sometimes from up to three founder ES cells. The number of founder cells was independent of the total number of cells injected into the host blastocysts. Our results are consistent with the notion that constraints of the host embryo restrict the number of ES cells that can contribute to a chimeric or an ES mouse.