We have cloned a Xenopus cDNA that is related to snail, a gene that is required for mesoderm formation in Drosophila. The cDNA encodes a protein that contains five zinc-fingers that closely resemble those of snail. In the non-canonical parts of the DNA-binding loop, there is almost 90% homology between snail and xsna. The corresponding mRNA (xsna) is expressed strongly at the start of zygotic transcription simultaneously with the transcription factor EF1 alpha. In early gastrulae, xsna is equally distributed between the dorsal and ventral halves of the equatorial zone. The possibility that the capacity to synthesise xsna is more localised before the start of zygotic transcription has been investigated by culturing fragments of stage 8 embryos until xsna is synthesised. The capacity to synthesise xsna at stage 8 is located principally in the dorsal half of the equatorial zone. A small amount of maternal xsna is localised in the vegetal hemisphere before zygotic transcription starts. xsna is not present in isolated animal caps but can be induced by the mesoderm-inducing factors XTC-MIF and bFGF. Synthesis of xsna does not occur autonomously in dispersed cells but is restored when cells reaggregate in the presence of calcium and magnesium.