The cadherin-catenin complex has an important role in cell-cell adhesion and may also function in signaling pathways. We report that overexpression of three cadherin types in Xenopus embryos causes them to develop with reduced dorsal axial structures. The same phenotype is produced in embryos that have been depleted of maternal beta-catenin protein by an antisense oligodeoxynucleotide complementary to beta-catenin mRNA. They show an inhibition in the expression of dorsal mesodermal markers MyoD and goosecoid, but not of ventral and general mesodermal markers. They lack notochords, somites, and neural tubes and are defective in dorsal mesodermal signaling in Nieuwkoop assays. The phenotype can be rescued by the injection of beta-catenin mRNA and not by the injection of Xwnt-8 mRNA. These results show that beta-catenin has an important role in dorsal mesoderm induction. They directly demonstrate the activity of a maternal mRNA in axis specification.