Tadpole larvae of ascidians represent the basic body plan of chordates with a relatively small number and few types of cells. Because of their simplicity, ascidians have been intensively studied. More than a century of research on ascidian embryogenesis has uncovered many cellular and molecular mechanisms responsible for cell fate specification in the early embryo. This review describes recent advances in our understanding of the molecular mechanisms of fate specification mainly uncovered in model ascidian species--Halocynthia roretzi, Ciona intestinalis, and Ciona savignyi. One category of developmentally important molecules represents maternal localized mRNAs that are involved in cell-autonomous processes. In the second category, signaling molecules and downstream transcription factors are involved in inductive cell interactions. Together with genome-wide information, there is a renewed interest in studying ascidian embryos as a fascinating model system for understanding how single-celled eggs develop a highly organized chordate body plan.