N-cadherin is a calcium-dependent, cell adhesion molecule that has been proposed to play a role in morphogenesis in vertebrate embryos. Throughout early neural development, N-cadherin is expressed during the morphogenetic changes that occur when ectoderm, in response to neural induction, forms a neural plate and tube. To study the role of N-cadherin in these processes, cDNA clones encoding Xenopus laevis N-cadherin were isolated and used to study the expression of N-cadherin in frog embryos. These studies showed that N-cadherin RNA is not expressed at detectable levels in early cleavage embryos or in isolated ectoderm in the absence of neural induction. However, N-cadherin RNA rapidly appeared in ectoderm exposed to a heterologous neural inducer, indicating that N-cadherin expression, as an early response to induction, precedes the morphogenetic events associated with early neural development. The role of N-cadherin in these morphogenetic events was studied by ectopically expressing N-cadherin in the ectoderm of embryos prior to induction. The ectopic expression of this protein in ectoderm led to the formation of cell boundaries and to severe morphological defects. These results are consistent with the hypothesis that the morphogenetic changes associated with early neural development are controlled, in part, by the induced expression of N-cadherin in the neural plate.