We report the isolation and characterization of a Xenopus activin receptor (XAR1). The amino acid sequence of this protein shows extensive homology with a murine activin receptor. The mRNA is expressed maternally and is ubiquitously distributed during the early stages of embryogenesis. Consistent with a possible role in mesoderm induction and patterning, interference with the normal expression of the receptor by overexpression in the early embryo results in the formation of ectopic dorsal axial structures. During neurulation the XAR1 mRNA is expressed predominantly in the presumptive brain and spinal cord, suggesting an additional function for XAR1 in neurogenesis.