Tissues of the dorsal midline of vertebrate embryos, such as notochord and floor plate, have been implicated in inductive interactions that pattern the neural tube and somites. In our screen for embryonic visible mutations in the zebrafish we found 113 mutations in more than 27 genes with altered body shape, often with additional defects in CNS development. We concentrated on a subgroup of mutations in ten genes (the midline-group) that cause defective development of the floor plate. By using floor plate markers, such as the signaling molecule sonic hedgehog, we show that the schmalspur (sur) gene is needed for early floor plate development, similar to one-eyed-pinhead (oep) and the previously described cyclops (cyc) gene. In contrast to oep and cyc, sur embryos show deletions of ventral CNS tissue restricted to the mid- and hindbrain, whereas the forebrain appears largely unaffected. In the underlying mesendodermal tissue of the head, sur is needed only for development of the posterior prechordal plate, whereas oep and cyc are required for both anterior and posterior prechordal plate development. Our analysis of sur mutants suggests that defects within the posterior prechordal plate may cause aberrant development of ventral CNS structures in the mid- and hindbrain. Later development of the floor plate is affected in mutant chameleon, you-too, sonic-you, iguana, detour, schmalhans and monorail embryos; these mutants often show additional defects in tissues that are known to depend on signals from notochord and floor plate. For example, sur, con and yot mutants show reduction of motor neurons; median deletions of brain tissue are seen in sur, con and yot embryos; and cyc, con, yot, igu and dtr mutants often show no or abnormal formation of the optic chiasm. We also find fusions of the ventral neurocranium for all midline mutants tested, which may reveal a hitherto unrecognized function of the midline in influencing differentiation of neural crest cells at their destination. As a working hypothesis, we propose that midline-group genes may act to maintain proper structure and inductive function of zebrafish midline tissues.