Cardiac troponin T (cTNT) is a component of the troponin complex, which confers calcium sensitivity to contraction in skeletal and cardiac muscle. Although it is thought that most components of the contractile myofibril are expressed exclusively in differentiated muscle cells, we observed that mRNAs coding for cTNT were detectable in explanted late gastrula mesoderm at least 12 hr before cardiac myocyte differentiation. We therefore conducted a detailed analysis of cTNT gene expression in the early chick embryo. Whole-mount in situ hybridization studies showed that by Hamburger and Hamilton stage 5, cTNT mRNAs are detectable in lateral mesoderm and, by stage 6, are observed throughout the lateral embryonic and extraembryonic mesoderm in a distribution that is much broader than the recognized heart field. As myocardial cell differentiation commences, cTNT transcripts become progressively localized to the forming heart and, by stage 14, are completely restricted to heart muscle cells. Western blot analyses demonstrated that cTNT protein expression is under translational control, as cTNT protein is not detectable until stage 9, concomitant with myocardial cell differentiation. Removal of endoderm at stage 5 had no effect on cTNT mRNA levels, and the bone morphogenetic protein (BMP) inhibitor noggin failed to block cTNT expression, even in the heart-forming region and in cases where heart formation was inhibited. Implantation of noggin-expressing CHO cells at the anterior midline of stage 7 embryos resulted in cardia bifida. These findings demonstrate the precocious, BMP-independent expression of a gene coding for a myofibrillar protein and suggest that an additional regulatory pathway exists for activation of some cardiogenic genes. © 2002 Wiley-Liss, Inc.