In zebrafish, as in Xenopus, the well-orchestrated cell movements of gastrulation can be dissected into several components, including epiboly, involution, convergence and extension. Embryos homozygous for the recessive lethal mutation spt-1(b104) or 'spadetail' have a complex set of defects in the trunk of the embryo that may arise secondarily after loss of one of these movements, convergence, from those precursors that would normally have given rise to trunk somitic mesoderm. We have now tested this hypothesis by transplanting cells between wild-type and mutant embryos, to identify the cells that spt-1 affects directly. Our results show that the mutation autonomously affects only those mesodermal precursors located along the lateral margin of the early gastrula blastoderm. Other mesodermal cells and all ectodermal precursors seem not to require function of the wild-type gene. Our findings reveal an unexpectedly delicate genetic control of vertebrate gastrulation.