Recently our laboratory described an efficient method for generating retroviral provirus insertions in the zebrafish germ line, and we showed that provirus insertions induce embryonic mutations at a frequency of roughly one mutant per 70 insertions. To date we have isolated four insertional mutants and, using the proviruses as a molecular tag, have cloned the genes disrupted in three of them. The proviruses in all three mutants lie within or just 5' of the first coding exon, point in the opposite transcriptional orientation from the gene, and disrupt transcription. Here we present a molecular characterization of two genes identified by this method and describe the associated mutant phenotypes. The pescadillo (pes) gene is predicted to encode a protein of 582 amino acids with no recognizable functional motifs, which is highly conserved from yeast to humans. pes mRNA is expressed widely and dynamically during the first 3 days of embryogenesis. Prominent sites of expression are the eyes and optic tectum on day 1, the fin buds, liver primordium, and gut on day 2, and the branchial arches on day 3. Beginning at day 3 of embryogenesis, pes mutant embryos exhibit small eyes, a reduced brain and visceral skeleton, shortened fins, and a lack of expansion of the liver and gut, and then die on the sixth day of development. The dead eye (dye) gene encodes a protein of 820 amino acids that is homologous to genes of unknown function in human, mouse, and Xenopus, and that has weak homology with the yeast NIC96 (nucleoporin-interacting component) gene. dye mutants can be recognized on day 2 of embryogenesis by the presence of necrotic cells in the tectum and eyes. dye mutants die on day 5 of development. These results demonstrate the power of insertional mutagenesis in zebrafish for rapidly finding and characterizing novel genes essential for embryonic development. Using our current methodology, we estimate that our laboratory could screen approximately 25,000 insertions in 2-3 years, identifying perhaps 250-350 embryonic lethal genes. Assuming that all genes are accessible to proviral insertion, the wider application of this approach could lead to the rapid identification of the majority of genes that are required for embryonic development of this vertebrate.