Xenopus cDNAs homologous to the Drosophila Mad gene and C. elegans CEM genes have been cloned and functionally analyzed by microinjection into frog embryos. The results show that these genes (Xmad) encode intracellular proteins that act downstream of TGF beta superfamily ligands. Most interesting is the fact that different Xmad proteins produce distinct biological responses. Xmad1 produces ventral mesoderm, apparently transducing a signal for BMP2 and BMP4, whereas Xmad2 induces dorsal mesoderm like Vg1, activin, and nodal. These results suggest that an individual Xmad protein waits poised in the cytoplasm for instruction from a distinct subset of TGF beta ligands and then conveys specific information to the nucleus.