Studies performed over the last century have clarified the mechanisms of organ and tissue formation. Mesoderm formation is one of the most important events in early body pattern determination during embryogenesis. In 1988, we found that activin A has mesoderm-inducing activity. As activin A could induce dorsal mesoderm formation, unlike fibroblast growth factor and bone morphogenetic protein, this factor was thought to be the molecular entity of the Spemann-Mangold organizer. Subsequently, the mechanisms of early embryogenesis have been clarified using molecular biological techniques, resulting in the identification of many genes that are involved in organ and tissue development. This finding that activin A could induce dorsal mesoderm formation spurred research into the application of agents that induce organs and tissues in vitro. In this regard, we have shown that many organ types can be induced by activin A in vitro. Moreover, we have found that other types of organs can be induced by changing the conditions of treatment. To date, more than 20 different types of tissues and organs have been successfully induced from Xenopus undifferentiated cells in vitro. In recent years, we have applied these protocols to mouse embryonic stem cells, and we have successfully induced several tissues, such as the pancreas and cardiomyocytes. We are also investigating how the pluripotency of undifferentiated stem cells is regulated. In this review, we summarize the current knowledge regarding activin as a mesoderm-inducing factor and its application for the induction of tissues and organs from undifferentiated cells. Moreover, we provide some examples of in vitro tissue differentiation from mouse embryonic stem cells, which may prove useful in regenerative medicine.