The anterior segment of the vertebrate eye includes the cornea, iris, ciliary body, trabecular meshwork, and lens. Although malformations of these structures have been implicated in many human eye diseases, little is known about the molecular mechanisms that control their development. To identify genes involved in anterior segment formation, we developed a large-scale in situ hybridization screen and examined the spatial and temporal expression of over 1000 genes during eye development. This screen identified 62 genes with distinct expression patterns in specific eye structures, including several expressed in novel patterns in the anterior segment. Using these genes as developmental markers, we tested for the presence of inductive signals that control the differentiation of anterior segment tissues. Organ culture recombination experiments showed that a chick lens is capable of inducing the expression of markers of the presumptive iris and ciliary body in the developing mouse neural retina. The inducing activity from the lens acts only over short ranges and is present at multiple stages of eye development. These studies provide molecular evidence that an evolutionarily conserved signal from the lens controls tissue specification in the developing optic cup.