Nine members of the fork head domain gene family (fkd1-fkd9) were isolated from early cDNA libraries in the zebrafish. They show unique expression patterns in whole-mount RNA in situ hybridization during the first 24 h of embryonic development. These fkd genes fall into three of ten classes, based on sequence similarities within the DNA-binding domain, whereas members for the other seven classes described in other vertebrates were not found. In addition to conserved residues at certain positions in the fork head domain, characteristic transcription activation domains as well as similarities in expression patterns were found for members of the different classes. Members of class I (fkd1/axial, fkd2/Zffkh1, fkd4 and fkd7) are differentially transcribed in unsegmented dorsal axial structures such as the floor plate, the notochord, the hypochord and, in addition, the endoderm. Transcripts of fkd3 and fkd5 (class II) are mainly detected in the cells of the ectoderm which form neural tissues, as is the case for genes of this class in other species. RNAs of the three members of class V (fkd6, fkd8 and fkd9) are expressed in the paraxial mesoderm and transiently in the neuroectoderm. fkd6 is strongly expressed in neural crest cells from early stages on, whereas fkd2 and fkd7 are transcribed in individual neural crest cells in the pharyngula period.