Molecular studies have begun to unravel the sequential cell-cell signalling events that establish the dorsal-ventral, or 'back-to-belly', axis of vertebrate animals. In Xenopus and zebrafish, these events start with the movement of membrane vesicles associated with dorsal determinants. This mediates the induction of mesoderm by generating gradients of growth factors. Dorsal mesoderm then becomes a signalling centre, the Spemann's organizer, which secretes several antagonists of growth-factor signalling. Recent studies have led to new models for the regulation of cell-cell signalling during development, which may also apply to the homeostasis of adult tissues.