The classical cadherins are known to have both adhesive and signaling functions. It has also been proposed that localized regulation of cadherin activity may be important in cell assortment during development. In the context of eye development, it has been suggested that cadherins are important for separation of the invaginated lens vesicle from the surface ectoderm. To test this hypothesis, we conditionally deleted N-cadherin or E-cadherin from the presumptive lens ectoderm of the mouse. Conditional deletion of either cadherin alone did not produce a lens vesicle separation defect. However, these conditional mutants did exhibit common structural deficits, including microphthalmia, severe iris hyperplasia, persistent vacuolization within the fibre cell region, and eventual lens epithelial cell deterioration. To assess the co-operative roles of E-cadherin and N-cadherin within the developing lens, double conditional knockout embryos were generated. These mice displayed distinct defects in lens vesicle separation and persistent expression of another classical cadherin, P-cadherin, within the cells of the persistent lens stalk. Double mutant lenses also exhibited severe defects in lens epithelial cell adhesion and survival. Finally, the severity of the lens phenotype was shown to be sensitive to the number of wild-type E- and N-cadherin alleles. These data suggest that the co-operative expression of both E- and N-cadherin during lens development is essential for normal cell sorting and subsequent lens vesicle separation.