Muscle gene expression is induced a few hours after vegetal cells of a Xenopus blastula are placed in contact with animal cells that normally develop into epidermis and nerve cells. We have used a muscle-specific actin gene probe to determine the timing of gene activation in animal-vegetal conjugates. Muscle actin RNA is first transcribed in a minority of animal cells at a stage equivalent to late gastrula. The time of muscle gene activation is determined by the developmental stage of the responding (animal) cells, and not by the time when cells are first placed in contact. The minimal cell contact time required for induction is between 1 1/2 and 2 1/2 hr, and the minimal time for gene activation after induction is 5-7 hr.