Little is known about the factors that control the specification of the mid-hindbrain domain (MHD) within the vertebrate embryonic neural plate. Because the head-trunk junction of the Drosophila embryo and the MHD have patterning similarities, we have searched for vertebrate genes related to the Drosophila head gap gene buttonhead (btd), which in the fly specifies the head-trunk junction. We report here the identification of a zebrafish gene which, like btd, encodes a zinc-finger transcriptional activator of the Sp-1 family (hence its name, bts1 for btd/Sp-related-1) and shows a restricted expression in the head. During zebrafish gastrulation, bts1 is transcribed in the posterior epiblast including the presumptive MHD, and precedes in this area the expression of other MHD markers such as her5, pax2.1 and wnt1. Ectopic expression of bts1 combined to knock-down experiments demonstrate that Bts1 is both necessary and sufficient for the induction of pax2.1 within the anterior neural plate, but is not involved in regulating her5, wnt1 or fgf8 expression. Our results confirm that early MHD development involves several genetic cascades that independently lead to the induction of MHD markers, and identify Bts1 as a crucial upstream component of the pathway selectively leading to pax2.1 induction. In addition, they imply that flies and vertebrates, to control the development of a boundary embryonic region, have probably co-opted a similar strategy: the restriction to this territory of the expression of a Btd/Sp-like factor.