Early regulatory events in respect to the embryonic development of the vertebrate liver are only poorly defined. A better understanding of the gene network that mediates the formation of hepatocytes from pluripotent embryonic precursor cells may help to establish in vitro protocols for hepatocyte differentiation. Here, we describe our first attempts to make use of early embryonic explants from the amphibian Xenopus laevis in order to address these questions. We have identified several novel embryonic liver and intestine marker genes in a random expression pattern screen with cDNA libraries derived from the embryonic liver anlage and from the adult liver of Xenopus laevis. Based on their embryonic expression characteristics, these genes, together with the previously known ones, can be categorized into four different groups: the liver specific group (LS), the liver and intestine group A (LIA), the liver and intestine group B (LIB), and the intestine specific group (IS). Dissociation of endodermal explants isolated from early neurula stage embryos reveals that all genes in the LIB and IS groups are expressed in a cell-autonomous manner. In contrast, expression of genes in the LS and LIA groups requires cell-cell interactions. The regular temporal expression profile of genes in all four groups is mimicked in ectodermal explants from early embryos, reprogrammed by co-injection of VegT and beta-catenin mRNAs. FGF signaling is found to be required for the induction of liver specific marker (LS group) gene expression in the same system.