We have identified mutations that perturb the formation or differentiation of the first embryonic blood cells in the zebrafish embryo. These 'primitive' red blood cells originate in the intermediate cell mass of the trunk, a derivative of the dorsal lateral plate mesoderm. By transfusion of blood between embryos we demonstrate that this cohort of cells provides the embryo with all, or nearly all, of its blood cells until at least day 5 postfertilization. Larval lethal mutations generated by ENU mutagenesis affect different steps in the development of these cells. Some cause defects in precursor generation, others defects in differentiation, and others an increase in cellular photosensitivity.