The sequence-specific DNA-binding protein, MyoD, can activate muscle-specific gene expression in some cells in culture. Xenopus MyoD (XMyoD) transcription is activated as a consequence of mesoderm induction in the early myotomes, from which the axial musculature develops. XMyoD RNA accumulates about two hours before muscle-specific actin transcripts first appear, and so is expressed at the right time and in the right place to play a part in activating muscle-specific gene expression in normal development. To test this idea, we have expressed XMyoD ectopically in early Xenopus embryos. We find that injection of XMyoD RNA can strongly activate muscle genes in embryo cells normally destined to form ectoderm. Nevertheless, these cells fail to differentiate as muscle, suggesting that additional factors are required for complete and stable myogenesis.