Cellular communication in the developing embryo is mediated by receptor-ligand interactions at the cell surface. Receptor protein tyrosine kinases (RTKs) have been shown to play a critical role in the development of the vertebrate embryo. The eph receptors are a large subclass of RTKs for which a corresponding ligand family has only recently been described. The restricted expression patterns of several eph receptors imply roles for these molecules in early vertebrate development. We have isolated both a ligand of the eph ligand family (ELF), that we have named XELF-a, and an eph-related receptor, XE10, the likely homolog of the murine eck/Sek-2 receptor. At least two forms of the XELF-a transcript are present in the developing embryo. A truncated form of the XELF-a ligand, XELF-á, is the first ELF ligand isolated that lacks both the membrane-spanning and membrane-anchoring motifs conserved among this family, suggesting that ELF ligands can function as fully soluble molecules in vivo. XELF-a and XE10 are expressed maternally and throughout early embryogenesis, while XELF-á is only expressed zygotically. The dynamic expression patterns of these signalling molecules, in both mesoderm and neurectoderm, suggest that they may play a role in the patterning of the early vertebrate embryo.