Abstract Many applications of human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) will require fully defined growth and differentiation conditions including media devoid of fetal calf serum. To identify factors that control lineage differentiation we have analyzed a serum-free (SF) medium conditioned by the cell line END2, which efficiently induces hESCs to form cardiomyocytes. Firstly, we noted that insulin, a commonly used medium supplement, acted as a potent inhibitor of cardiomyogenesis in multiple hESC lines and was rapidly cleared by medium conditioning. In the presence of insulin or IGF-1, which also suppressed cardiomyocyte differentiation, the PI3/Akt pathway was activated in undifferentiated hESC, suggesting that insulin/IGF-1 effects were mediated by this signaling cascade. Time course analysis and quantitative RT-PCR revealed impaired expression of endoderm and mesoderm markers in the presence of insulin, particularly if added during early stages of hESC differentiation. Relatively high levels of the neural ectoderm marker Sox1 were expressed under these conditions. Secondly, comparative gene expression showed that two key enzymes in the prostaglandin I2 (PGI2) synthesis pathway were highly up-regulated in END2 cells compared with a related, but non-cardiogenic, cell line. Biochemical analysis confirmed 6–10-fold higher PGI2 levels in END2 cell-conditioned medium (END2-CM) vs. controls. Optimized concentrations of PGI2 in a fully synthetic, insulin-free medium resulted in a cardiogenic activity equivalent to END2-CM. Addition of the p38 mitogen-activated protein kinase-inhibitor SB203580, which we have shown previously to enhance hESC cardiomyogenesis, to these insulin-free and serum-free conditions resulted in a cardiomyocyte content of >10% in differentiated cultures without any preselection. This study represents a significant step toward developing scalable production for cardiomyocytes from hESC using clinically compliant reagents compatible with Good Manufacturing Practice.