The molecular mechanisms underlying heart and skeletal muscle-specific gene expression during development and in response to physioloic stimuli are largely unknown. Using a novel immunohistochemical procedure to detect chloramphenicol acetyltransferase (CAT), we have investigated, in vivo at high resolution, the ability of cis-acting DNA sequences within the 5' flanking region of the mouse beta myosin heavy chain (MyHC) gene (beta-MyHC) to direct appropriate gene expression throughout development. A 5.6-kb fragment 5' to the beta-MyHC's transcriptional start site was linked to the reporter gene encoding CAT (cat) and used to generate transgenic mice. The anti-CAT in situ assay described in this report allowed us to define the ability of the promoter fragment to direct appropriate temporal, tissue- and muscle fiber type-specific gene expression throughout early development. In skeletal muscles, the transgene expression profile mimics the endogenous beta-myHC's at all developmental stages and is appropriately restricted to slow (type I) skeletal fibers in the adult. Surprisingly, transgene expression was detected in both the atria and ventricles during embryonic and fetal development, indicating that ventricular specification involves elements outside the 5.6-kb fragment. In contrast, in the adult, hypothyroid conditions led to transgene induction specifically in the ventricles, suggesting that distinct regulatory mechanisms control fetal versus adult beta-MyHC expression in the cardiac compartment.