The potent mesoderm-inducing factors activin and FGF are present as maternally synthesized proteins in embryos of X. laevis. We show that activin can act on explanted blastomeres to induce at least five different cell states ranging from posterolateral mesoderm to dorsoanterior organizer mesoderm. Each state is induced in a narrow dose range bounded by sharp thresholds. By contrast, FGF induces only posterolateral markers and does so over relatively broad dose ranges. FGF can modulate the actions of activin, potentiating them and broadening the threshold-bounded dose windows. Our results indicate that orthogonal gradients of activin and FGF would be sufficient to specify the main elements of the body plan.