We have characterized the expression pattern of a class I fork head/HNF-3 gene (HrHNF3-1) of the ascidian Halocynthia roretzi. Zygotic HrHNF3-1 expression was detectable as early as the 16-cell stage, and the transcript was evident in blastomeres of the endoderm, notochord and mesenchyme lineages of the early embryos. After the late gastrula stage, HrHNF3-1 was also expressed in the presumptive spinal cord cells and some brain cells. The spinal cord of the ascidian tadpole consists of four layers of cells; the dorsal layer, two lateral layers and the ventral layer, the latter of which simply lies on the notochord. Cross-sections of in situ hybridized specimens showed that HrHNF3-1 was expressed in cells of the ventral layer, reminiscent of the floor plate of vertebrate embryos. In addition, we found autonomy in the initiation of early HrHNF3-1 expression, because the gene was expressed in blastomeres continuously dissociated from the first cleavage until the 16-cell stage.