Pluripotent embryonic stem cells (ESC, ES cells) of line D3 were differentiated in vitro and via embryo-like aggregates (embryoid bodies) of defined cell number into spontaneously beating cardiomyocytes. By using RT-PCR technique, alpha- and beta-cardiac myosin heavy chain (MHC) genes were found to be expressed in embryoid bodies of early to terminal differentiation stages. The exclusive expression of the beta-cardiac MHC gene detected in very early differentiated embryoid bodies proved to be dependent on the number of ES cells developing in the embryoid body. Cardiomyocytes enzymatically isolated from embryoid body outgrowths at different stages of development were further characterized by immunocytological and electrophysiological techniques. All cardiomyocytes appeared to be positive in immunofluorescence assays with monoclonal antibodies against cardiac-specific alpha-cardiac MHC, as well as muscle-specific sarcomeric myosin heavy chain and desmin. The patch-clamp technique allowed a more detailed characterization of the in vitro differentiated cardiomyocytes which were found to represent phenotypes corresponding to sinusnode, atrium or ventricle of the heart. The cardiac cells of early differentiated stage expressed pacemaker-like action potentials similar to those described for embryonic cardiomyocytes. The action potentials of terminally differentiated cells revealed shapes, pharmacological characteristics and hormonal regulation inherent to adult sinusnodal, atrial or ventricular cells. In cardiomyocytes of intermediate differentiation state, action potentials of very long duration (0.3-1 s) were found, which may represent developmentally controlled transitions between different types of action potentials. Therefore, the presented ES cell differentiation system permits the investigation of commitment and differentiation of embryonic cells into the cardiomyogenic lineage in vitro.