Understanding the factors that direct tissue organization during development is one of the most fundamental goals in developmental biology. Various hypotheses explain cell sorting and tissue organization on the basis of the adhesive and mechanical properties of the constituent cells. However, validating these hypotheses has been difficult due to the lack of appropriate tools to measure these parameters. Here we use atomic force microscopy (AFM) to quantify the adhesive and mechanical properties of individual ectoderm, mesoderm and endoderm progenitor cells from gastrulating zebrafish embryos. Combining these data with tissue self-assembly in vitro and the sorting behaviour of progenitors in vivo, we have shown that differential actomyosin-dependent cell-cortex tension, regulated by Nodal/TGFbeta-signalling (transforming growth factor beta), constitutes a key factor that directs progenitor-cell sorting. These results demonstrate a previously unrecognized role for Nodal-controlled cell-cortex tension in germ-layer organization during gastrulation.