The Msx homeobox genes are expressed in complex patterns during vertebrate development in conjunction with inductive tissue interactions. As a means of understanding the archetypal role of Msx genes in chordates, we have isolated and characterized an Msx gene in ascidians, protochordates with a relatively simple body plan. The Mocu Msx-a and McMsx-a genes, isolated from the ascidians Molgula oculata and Molgula citrina, respectively, have homeodomains that place them in the msh-like subclass of Msx genes. Therefore, the Molgula Msx-a genes are most closely related to the msh genes previously identified in a number of invertebrates. Southern blot analysis suggests that there are one or two copies of the Msx-a gene in the Molgula genome. Northern blot and RNase protection analysis indicate that Msx-a transcripts are restricted to the developmental stages of the life cycle. In situ hybridization showed that Msx-a mRNA first appears just before gastrulation in the mesoderm (presumptive notochord and muscle) and ectoderm (neural plate) cells. Transcript levels decline in mesoderm cells after the completion of gastrulation, but are enhanced in the folding neural plate during neurulation. Later, Msx-a mRNA is also expressed in the posterior ectoderm and in a subset of the tail muscle cells. The ectoderm and mesoderm cells that express Msx-a are undergoing morphogenetic movements during gastrulation, neurulation, and tail formation. Msx-a expression ceases after these cells stop migrating. The ascidian M. citrina, in which adult tissues and organs begin to develop precociously in the larva, was used to study Msx-a expression during adult development. Msx-a transcripts are expressed in the heart primordium and the rudiments of the ampullae, epidermal protrusions with diverse functions in the juvenile. The heart and ampullae develop in regions where mesenchyme cells interact with endodermal or epidermal epithelia. A comparison of the expression patterns of the Molgula genes with those of their vertebrate congeners suggests that the archetypal roles of the Msx genes may be in morphogenetic movements during embryogenesis and in mesenchymal-epithelial interactions during organogenesis.