Pax genes are a family of transcription factors playing fundamental roles during organogenesis. We have recently demonstrated the expression of Pax-2 during Xenopus embryogenesis [Heller N, Brändli AW (1997): Mech Dev 69: 83-104]. Here we report the cloning and characterization of Xenopus Pax-5 and Pax-8, two orthologues of the Pax-2/5/8 gene family. Molecular phylogenetic analysis indicates that the amphibian Pax-2/5/8 genes are close relatives of their mammalian counterparts and that all vertebrate Pax-2/5/8 genes are derived from a single ancestral gene. Xenopus Pax-2/5/8 genes are expressed in spatially and temporally overlapping patterns during development of at least seven distinct tissues. Most strikingly, Xenopus Pax-8 was identified as the earliest marker of the prospective otic placode and of the intermediate mesoderm, indicating that Pax-8 may play a central role in auditory and excretory system development. Comparison of the expression patterns of fish, amphibian, and mammalian Pax-2/5/8 genes revealed that the tissue specificity of Pax-2/5/8 gene family expression is overall evolutionarily conserved. The expression domains of individual orthologues can however vary in a species-specific manner. For example, the thyroid glands of mammals express Pax-8, while in Xenopus Pax-2 is expressed instead. Our findings indicate that differential silencing of Pax-2/5/8 gene expression may have occurred after the different classes of vertebrates began to evolve separately.