XB/U-cadherin is a maternal Xenopus cadherin which mediates interblastomere adhesion in early embryogenesis. In order to explore its role in gastrulation, we expressed a cytoplasmic deletion mutant of XB/U-cadherin (XB delta c38) under the control of the CMV promoter in Xenopus embryos. This truncated XB-cadherin fails to form complexes with catenins and does not mediate cell-cell aggregation as shown by transfection of mouse Ltk- cells. Injections of the deletion for XB/U-cadherin into the dorsal-marginal region of four cell stage embryos resulted in a dominant negative expression of the cadherin mutant after MBT. Two different phenotypes were observed in a dose dependent manner: high doses (125-250 pg DNA) led to severe distortions of the gastrulation movement. Involution of the mesoderm was impaired, posterior mesoderm migrated laterally around the blastopore and formed two bands of axial tissue. Low doses (up to 50 pg DNA) resulted in embryos of a posteriorized phenotype with disorganized neural structures. Both phenotypes could be rescued by coinjection of cDNA constructs containing wild-type XB/U-cadherin. Injections of constructs encoding a XB/U-cadherin protein truncated both in its extracellular and cytoplasmic domains yielded normal phenotypes. These results suggest that a proper function of XB/U-cadherin is essential for mesoderm movements during gastrulation.