We have used a sensitive assay for MAP kinase activity to investigate the role of endogenous fibroblast growth factor (FGF)-activated MAP kinase in early Xenopus embryonic patterning. MAP kinase activity is low during cleavage stages and increases significantly during gastrulation. The temporal profile of this activity correlates well with the expression pattern of Xenopus eFGF. Spatially, MAP kinase activity is lowest in animal pole tissue and higher in vegetal pole cells and the marginal zone. Endogenous MAP kinase activity is FGF receptor-dependent, demonstrating that FGF signaling is active in all three germ layers of the early embryo. This activity is necessary for normal expression of Mix.1, a mesoendodermal marker, in the endoderm as well as in the mesoderm, indicating that MAP kinase plays a functional role in patterning of both of these germ layers. Spatial and temporal changes in MAP kinase activation during gastrulation also suggest a role for FGF signaling in this process. In addition, we find that embryonic wounding during dissection results in significant stimulation of this pathway, providing a possible explanation for earlier observations of effects of surgical manipulation on cell fate in early embryos.