In Xenopus embryos, the cell cycle is abbreviated to a rapid alternation between interphase and mitosis. The onset of each M phase is induced by the periodic activation of the cdc2 kinase which is triggered by a threshold level of cyclins and apparently involves dephosphorylation of p34cdc2. We have prepared post-ribosomal supernatants from eggs sampled during interphase (interphase extracts) and just before the first mitosis of the early embryonic cell cycle (prophase extracts). In 'interphase extracts', the cdc2 kinase never activates spontaneously upon incubation at room temperature whereas in 'prophase extracts' it does. We show here that in 'interphase extracts', specific inhibition of type 2A phosphatase by okadaic acid induces cdc2 kinase activation. This requires a subthreshold level of cyclin and the presence of a particulate factor in the extract. Inhibition of type 1 phosphatases by inhibitor 1 and inhibitor 2 never results in cdc2 kinase activation. These results demonstrate that during the period of cyclin accumulation, cdc2 kinase activation is inhibited by a type 2A phosphatase. In 'prophase extracts', spontaneous activation of the cdc2 kinase is inhibited by beta-glycerophosphate and NaF, but not by okadaic acid, inhibitor 1 and inhibitor 2 or divalent cation chelation. This demonstrates that when enough cyclin has accumulated, cdc2 kinase activation involves a protein phosphatase which must be distinct from the type 1 and 2A phosphatases, and from the calcium-dependent (type 2B) and magnesium-dependent (type 2C) phosphatases.