In Xenopus, endodermal cell fate is determined gradually from late blastula to early gastrula stages; cell-cell interaction plays an important role in this process. Here we use a cell dissociation assay to show that extracellular signaling is required continuously before endoderm determination. Activin and Vg1, but not BMP2 or basic FGF, rescue the expression of endodermal markers in dissociated cells when provided at the mid-blastula transition (MBT, the time in which zygotic transcription begins). Removal of exogenously added activin or Vg1 before MBT results in reduction of endodermal gene expression in dissociated vegetal cells. In vivo, endogenous endodermal markers are reduced in vegetal explants when activin-like signaling is blocked with dominant negative receptors. VegT, a maternal transcription factor shown to be critical for endoderm specification, relies on an active TGFβ pathway to induce endoderm in animal caps. These results indicate that TGFβ signaling may be activated by the maternally expressed VegT to participate in endoderm determination. In addition, VegT function seems to be required in parallel with the TGFβ pathway, as overexpression of activin does not relieve endoderm repression by a dominant negative VegT mutant in vegetal cells. Our data suggest that maternal VegT first activates a zygotic TGFβ signal, then cooperates with this signal to determine the endodermal cell fate. Copyright (C) 2000 Elsevier Science Ireland Ltd.