The patterning of an internal organ, like the heart, is little understood. Central to this patterning is the formation, or the acquisition, of an anteroposterior (A-P) axis. We have approached the question of how the heart tube acquires polarity in the zebrafish, Brachydanio rerio, which offers numerous advantages for studying cardiac morphogenesis. During the early stages of organogenesis in the fish, the heart tube lies in an A-P orientation with the venous end lying anteriorly and the arterial end lying posteriorly. High doses (10(-6)-10(-5)M) of retinoic acid (RA) cause truncation of the body axis, as they do in Xenopus. Low doses of retinoic acid (10(-8)-10(-7) M), which do not appear to affect the rest of the embryo, have pronounced effects upon heart tube morphogenesis, causing it to shrink progressively along the A-P axis. To investigate this further, we identified monoclonal antibodies that distinguish between the zebrafish cardiac chambers and used them to show that the RA-induced cardiac truncation always begins at the arterial end of the heart tube. There is a continuous gradient of sensitivity from the arterial to the venous end, such that increasing RA exposure causes the progressive and sequential deletion first of the bulbus arteriosus and then, in order, of the ventricle, the atrium, and the sinus venosus. As exposure increases, parts of chambers are deleted before entire chambers; thus, the sensitivity to RA appears to be independent of chamber boundaries. The analysis of the heart tube's sensitivity to RA and its timing suggest that polarity is established during or shortly after initial commitment to the cardiac lineage.