To understand the hierarchy of developmental controls underlying axis specification in vertebrate embryos, it is helpful to identify relationships between regulatory molecules and the genes that give axial cells their differentiated phenotypes. This work reports the cloning and expression pattern of one of these differentiation genes, a type II collagen (col2a1) gene from the zebrafish Danio rerio. Along the embryonic axis, col2a1 is expressed dynamically in three rows that are each a single cell wide: the notochord and the rows of cells immediately dorsal and ventral to it--the floor plate of the central nervous system, and the hypochord. In addition, col2a1 is expressed in the pharyngeal arches, the epithelium of the otic capsule, and in the mesenchyme of the neurocranium. Experiments probed the expression pattern of col2a1 relative to that of known or potential regulators of axis development, including axial, sonic hedgehog, twist, and cyclops. The results showed that the spatial and temporal pattern of col2a1 expression in axial mesoderm follows the expression of twist closer than other genes tested. In cyclops embryos, which lack an intact floor plate, col2a1 expression was usually low, but not missing in cells in the ventral spinal cord. Because col2a1 expression reveals abnormalities in the notochord of cyclopsb16 embryos, and less col2a1-expressing mesenchyme accumulates rostral to the notochord in cyclops embryos, the effects of the cyclopsb16 mutation are not confined to the central nervous system.