The Xenopus ectoderm consists of two populations of cells, superficial polarised epithelial cells and deep, non-epithelial cells. These two cell types differ in their developmental fate. In the neural ectoderm, primary neurons are derived only from the deep cells. In the epidermal ectoderm, superficial cells express high levels of differentiation markers, while most of the deep cells do not differentiate until later when they produce the stratified adult epidermis. However, few molecular differences are known between the deep and superficial cells. Here, we have undertaken a systematic approach to identify genes that show layer-restricted expression by microarray analysis of deep and superficial cells at the gastrula stage, followed by wholemount in situ hybridisation. We have identified 32 differentially expressed genes, of which 26 show higher expression in the superficial layer and 6 in the deep layer and describe their expression at the gastrula and neurula stage. One of the identified genes is the transcription factor Grh13, which we found to be expressed in the superficial layer of the gastrula ectoderm and the neurula epidermis. By using markers identified in this work.. we show that Grlh3 promotes superficial gene expression in the deep layer of the epidermis. Concomitantly, deep layer specific genes are switched off, showing that Grlh3 can promote deep cells to take on a superficial cell identity in the embryonic epidermis. (c) 2006 Elsevier Ireland Ltd. All rights reserved.