During early heart development the expression pattern of N-cadherin, a calcium-dependent cell adhesion molecule, suggests its involvement in morphoregulation and the stabilization of cardiomyocyte differentiation. N-cadherin's adhesive activity is dependent upon its interaction with the intracellular catenins. An association with alpha-catenin and beta-catenin also is believed to be involved in cell signaling. This study details the expression patterns of alpha-catenin, beta-catenin, and gamma-catenin, during definition of the cardiac cell population as distinct compartments in the anterior regions of the chick embryo between stages 5 and 9. The restriction of N-cadherin/catenin localization at stage 5+ from a uniform pattern in vivo, to specific cell clusters that demarcate areas where mesoderm separation is initiated, suggests that the N-cadherin/catenin complex is involved in boundary formation and in the subsequent cell sorting. The latter two processes lead to the specification and formation of the somatic and cardiac splanchnic mesoderm. N-cadherin colocalized with alpha- and beta-catenin at the cell membrane before and during the time that its expression becomes restricted to the lateral mesoderm and continues cephalocaudad into stage 8. These proteins continue to colocalize in the myocardium of the tubular heart. Plakoglobin is not expressed in this region during stages 6-8, but is detected in the myocardium later at stage 13. The observed in vivo expression patterns of alpha-catenin, beta-catenin, and plakoglobin suggest that these proteins are directly linked with the developmental regulation of cell junctions, as cardiac cells become stably committed and phenotypically differentiated to eventually form a mature myocardium. The localization of N-CAM also was analyzed during these stages to determine whether the N-cadherin-catenin localization was unique or whether other cell adhesion molecules were expressed similarly. The results indicate that the unique pattern of N-cadherin expression is not shared with N-CAM. We also show that perturbation of N-cadherin using a function perturbing N-cadherin antibody (NCD-2) inhibits normal early heart development and myogenesis in a cephalocaudad, stage-dependent manner. We propose a model whereby myocardial cell compartmentalization also defines the endocardial population. The presence of beta-catenin suggests that a similar signaling pathway involving Wnt (wingless)-mediated events may function in myocardial cell compartmentalization during early vertebrate heart development, as in Drosophila contractile vessel development.