Patterning the embryonic dorsoventral axis of both vertebrates and invertebrates requires signalling through bone morphogenetic proteins (BMPs). Although a well-studied process, the identity of the physiologically relevant BMP signalling complex in the Drosophila melanogaster embryo is controversial, is generally inferred from cell culture studies and has not been investigated in vertebrates. Here, we demonstrate that dorsoventral patterning in zebrafish, Danio rerio, requires two classes of non-redundant type I BMP receptors, Alk3/6 and Alk8 (activin-like kinases 3/6 and 8). We show, under physiological conditions in the embryo, that these two type I receptor classes form a complex in a manner that depends on Bmp2 and Bmp7. We found that both Bmp2-7 heterodimers, as well as Bmp2 and Bmp7 homodimers, form in the embryo. However, only recombinant ligand heterodimers can activate BMP signalling in the early embryo, whereas a combination of Bmp2 and Bmp7 homodimers cannot. We propose that only heterodimers, signalling through two distinct classes of type I receptor, possess sufficient receptor affinity in an environment of extracellular antagonists to elicit the signalling response required for dorsoventral patterning.