Recently, a pathway of genes which are part of a cascade regulating the side on which the heart forms during chick development was characterized (M. Levin et al., 1995, Cell 82, 1-20). Here we extend these previous studies, showing that manipulation of at least one member of the cascade, Sonic hedgehog (Shh), can affect the situs of embryonic rotation and of the gut, in addition to the heart. Bilateral expression of Shh, which is normally found exclusively on the left, does not result in left isomerism (a bilaterally symmetrical embryo having two left sides) nor in a complete situs inversus phenotype. Instead, misexpression of Shh on the right side of the node, which in turn leads to bilateral nodal expression, produces a heterotaxia-like condition, where different aspects of laterality are determined independently. Heart situs has previously been shown to be altered by ectopic Shh and activin. However, the most downstream gene identified in the LR pathway, nodal, had not been functionally linked to heart laterality. We show that ectopic (right-sided) nodal expression is able to affect heart situs, suggesting that the randomization of heart laterality observed in Shh and activin misexpression experiments is a result of changes in nodal expression and that nodal is likely to regulate heart situs endogenously. The first defined asymmetric signal in the left-right patterning pathway is Shh, which is initially expressed throughout Hensen's node but becomes restricted to the left side at stage 4(+). It has been hypothesized that the restriction of Shh expression may be due to repression by an upstream activin-like factor. The involvement of such an activin-like factor on the right side of Hensen's node was suggested because ectopic activin protein is able to repress Shh on the left side of the node, as well as to induce ectopic expression of a normally right-sided marker, the activin receptor cAct-RIIa. Here we provide further evidence in favor of this model. We find that a member of this family, Activin betaB, is indeed expressed asymmetrically, only on the right side of Hensen's node, at the correct time for it to be the endogenous asymmetric activin signal. Furthermore, we show that application of follistatin-loaded beads eliminates the asymmetry in Shh expression, consistent with an inhibition of an endogenous member of the activin-BMP superfamily. This combined with the previous data on exogenous activin supports the model that Activin betaB functions in the chick embryo to initiate Shh asymmetry. While these data extend our understanding of the early signals which establish left-right asymmetry, they leave unanswered the interesting question of how the bilateral symmetry of the embryo is initially broken to define a consistent left-right axis. Analysis of spontaneous chick twins suggests that, whatever the molecular mechanism, left-right patterning is unlikely to be due to a blastodermal prepattern but rather is initiated in a streak-autonomous manner.