The dorsoventral pattern of the Drosophila embryo is mediated by a gradient of nuclear localization of the dorsal protein which acts as a morphogen. Establishment of the nuclear concentration gradient of dorsal protein requires the activities of the 10 maternal 'dorsal group' genes whose function results in the positive regulation of the nuclear uptake of the dorsal protein. Here we show that in contrast to the dorsal group genes, the maternal gene cactus acts as a negative regulator of the nuclear localization of the dorsal protein. While loss of function mutations of any of the dorsal group genes lead to dorsalized embryos, loss of cactus function results in a ventralization of the body pattern. Progressive loss of maternal cactus activity causes progressive loss of dorsal pattern elements accompanied by the expansion of ventrolateral and ventral anlagen. However, embryos still retain dorsoventral polarity, even if derived from germline clones using the strongest available, zygotic lethal cactus alleles. In contrast to the loss-of-function alleles, gain-of-function alleles of cactus cause a dorsalization of the embryonic pattern. Genetic studies indicate that they are not overproducers of normal activity, but rather synthesize products with altered function. Epistatic relationships of cactus with dorsal group genes were investigated by double mutant analysis. The dorsalized phenotype of the dorsal mutation is unchanged upon loss of cactus activity. This result implies that cactus acts via dorsal and has no independent morphogen function. In all other dorsal group mutant backgrounds, reduction of cactus function leads to embryos that express ventrolateral pattern elements and have increased nuclear uptake of the dorsal protein at all positions along the dorsoventral axis. Thus, the cactus gene product can prevent nuclear transport of dorsal protein in the absence of function of the dorsal group genes. Genetic and cytoplasmic transplantation studies suggest that the cactus product is evenly distributed along the dorsoventral axis. Thus the inhibitory function that cactus product exerts on the nuclear transport of the dorsal protein appears to be antagonized on the ventral side. We discuss models of how the action of the dorsal group genes might counteract the cactus function ventrally.