Activin is a member of the transforming growth factor beta (TGF-beta) and possesses various activities in cellular control phenomena. During Xenopus embryonic development, activin is thought to act as a natural mesoderm-inducing factor. We isolated here the Xenopus activin receptor cDNA from Xenopus tadpole cDNA library and examined the expression of the Xenopus activin receptor gene during the course of early embryonic development. The Xenopus activin receptor has an 87% homology at the level of deduced amino acid sequence with the mouse activin receptor, and using the cDNA obtained, three bands of mRNA with different lengths were detected in Xenopus embryos throughout early embryogenesis. We synthesized activin receptor mRNA in vitro and tested the effect of the injection of the mRNA into Xenopus fertilized eggs on subsequent development. When the synthetic mRNA was injected into uncleaved fertilized eggs, embryos with reduced trunk structure were formed. However, when the mRNA was injected into the ventral blastomeres at the 16-cell stage, embryos with a secondary body axis were formed. These results indicate the importance of the function of activin receptor in the regulatory mechanism for body axis formation.