Skeletal muscle fibers express members of the myosin heavy chain (MyHC) gene family in a fiber-type-specific manner. In avian skeletal muscle it is the expression of the slow MyHC isoforms that most clearly distinguishes slow- from fast-contracting fiber types. Two hypotheses have been proposed to explain fiber-type-specific expression of distinct MyHC genes during development-an intrinsic mechanism based on the formation of different myogenic lineage(s) and an extrinsic, innervation-dependent mechanism. We developed a cell culture model system in which both mechanisms were evaluated during fetal muscle development. Myoblasts isolated from prospective fast (pectoralis major) or slow (medial adductor) fetal chick muscles formed muscle fibers in cell culture, none of which expressed slow MyHC genes. By contrast, when muscle fibers formed from myoblasts derived from the slow muscle were cocultured with neural tube, the muscle fibers expressed a slow MyHC gene, while muscle fibers formed from myoblasts of fast muscle origin continued to express only fast MyHC. Motor endplates formed on the fibers derived from myoblasts of both fast and slow muscle origin in cocultures, and slow MyHC gene expression did not occur when neuromuscular transmission or depolarization was blocked. We have cloned the slow MyHC gene that is expressed in response to innervation and identified it as the slow MyHC 2 gene, the predominant adult slow isoform. cDNAs encoding portions of the three slow myosin heavy chain genes (MyHC1, slow MyHC 2, and slow MyHC 3) were isolated. Only slow MyHC 2 mRNA was demonstrated to be abundant in the cocultures of neural tube and muscle fibers derived from myoblasts of slow muscle origin. Thus, expression of the slow MyHC 2 gene in this in vitro system indicates that formation of slow muscle fiber types is dependent on both myoblast lineage (intrinsic mechanisms) and innervation (extrinsic mechanisms), and suggests neither mechanism alone is sufficient to explain formation of muscle fibers of different types during fetal development.