BACKGROUND: The analysis of gene function based on the generation of mutant mice by homologous recombination in embryonic stem cells is limited if gene disruption results in embryonic lethality. Mosaic mice, which contain a certain proportion of mutant cells in all organs, allow lethality to be circumvented and the potential of mutant cells to contribute to different cell lineages to be analyzed. To generate mosaic animals, we used the bacteriophage P1-derived Cre-loxP recombination system, which allows gene alteration by Cre-mediated deletion of loxP- flanked gene segments. RESULTS: We generated nestin-cre transgenic mouse lines, which expressed the Cre recombinase under the control of the rat nestin promoter and its second intron enhancer. In crosses to animals carrying a loxP-flanked target gene, partial deletion of the loxP-flanked allele occurred before day 10.5 post coitum and was detectable in all adult organs examined, including germ-line cells. Using this approach, we generated mosaic mice containing cells deficient in the gamma-chain of the interleukin-2 receptor (IL-2R gamma); in these animals, the IL-2R gamma-deficient cells were underrepresented in the thymus and spleen. Because mice deficient in DNA polymerase beta die perinatally, we studied the effects of DNA polymerase beta deficiency in mosaic animals. We found that some of the mosaic polymerase beta-deficient animals were viable, but were often reduced in size and weight. The fraction of DNA polymerase beta-deficient cells in mosaic embryos decreased during embryonic development, presumably because wild-type cells had a competitive advantage. CONCLUSIONS: The nestin-cre transgenic mice can be used to generate mosaic animals in which target genes are mutated by Cre-mediated recombination of loxP-flanked target genes. By using mosaic animals, embryonic lethality can be bypassed and cell lineages for whose development a given target gene is critical can be identified. In the case of DNA polymerase beta, deficient cells are already selected against during embryonic development, demonstrating the general importance of this protein in multiple cell types.