Tumour necrosis factor ligand and receptor superfamily (TNFSF and TNFRSF) members have diverse and well-studied functions in the immune system. Additional, nonimmunological roles, such as in the morphogenesis of bone, tooth, hair and skin have also been described for some members. GITRL and its receptor GITR are well-described as co-regulators of the mammalian immune response. Here, we describe the identification and cloning of their zebrafish homologues and demonstrate a novel role for the ligand, but not the receptor, in early vertebrate development. The assignment of zebrafish Gitrl and Gitr was supported by homology and phylogenetic analysis. The ligand exhibited an oscillating pattern of mRNA expression during the first 36 hours post fertilization, during which time gitr mRNA was not detected, and morpholino oligonucleotide-mediated knock-down of gitrl, but not of gitr, resulted in disruption of early embryogenesis, most clearly revealed during gastrulation, which corresponded to the earliest peak in gitrl mRNA expression (5.25-10 hpf). We found Stat3 signalling to be altered in the gitrl-morphants, suggesting that one possible role for Gitrl during embryogenesis may be modulation of Jak/Stat signalling.