Wnt/β-catenin signaling is essential for the initiation of dorsal-ventral patterning during vertebrate embryogenesis. Maternal β-catenin accumulates in dorsal marginal nuclei during cleavage stages, but its critical target genes essential for dorsalization are silent until mid-blastula transition (MBT). Here, we find that zebrafish net1, a guanine nucleotide exchange factor, is specifically expressed in dorsal marginal blastomeres after MBT, and acts as a zygotic factor to promote the specification of dorsal cell fates. Loss- and gain-of-function experiments show that the GEF activity of Net1 is required for the activation of Wnt/β-catenin signaling in zebrafish embryos and mammalian cells. Net1 dissociates and activates PAK1 dimers, and PAK1 kinase activation causes phosphorylation of S675 of β-catenin after MBT, which ultimately leads to the transcription of downstream target genes. In summary, our results reveal that Net1-regulated β-catenin activation plays a crucial role in the dorsal axis formation during zebrafish development.Cell Research advance online publication 2 December 2016; doi:10.1038/cr.2016.141.