The coxsackievirus and adenovirus receptor (CAR), which mediates infection by the viruses most commonly associated with myocarditis, is a transmembrane component of specialized intercellular junctions, including the myocardial intercalated disc; it is known to mediate cell-cell recognition, but its natural function is poorly understood. We used conditional gene targeting to investigate the possible functions of CAR during embryonic development, generating mice with both germline and tissue-specific defects in CAR expression. Homozygous germline deletion of CAR exon 2 or cardiomyocyte-specific gene deletion at embryonic day 10 (E10) mediated by Cre recombinase expressed under the control of the cardiac troponin T promoter resulted in death by E12.5; embryos showed marked cardiac abnormalities by E10.5, with hyperplasia of the left ventricular myocardium, distention of the cardinal veins, and abnormalities of sinuatrial valves. Within the hyperplastic left ventricle, increased numbers of proliferating cells were evident; persistent expression of N-myc in the hyperplastic myocardium and attenuated expression of the trabecular markers atrial natriuretic factor and bone morphogenic protein 10 indicated that proliferating cardiomyocytes had failed to differentiate and form normal trabeculae. In electron micrographs, individual CAR-deficient cardiomyocytes within the left ventricle appeared normal, but intercellular junctions were ill-formed or absent, consistent with the known function of CAR as a junctional molecule; myofibrils were also poorly organized. When cardiomyocyte-specific deletion occurred somewhat later (by E11, mediated by Cre under control of the alpha-myosin heavy chain promoter), animals survived to adulthood and did not have evident cardiac abnormalities. These results indicate that during a specific temporal window, CAR expression on cardiomyocytes is essential for normal cardiac development. In addition, the results suggest that CAR-mediated intercellular contacts may regulate proliferation and differentiation of cardiomyocytes within the embryonic left ventricular wall.