A group of maternal genes, the posterior group, is required for the development of the abdominal region in the Drosophila embryo. We have used genetic as well as cytoplasmic transfer experiments to order seven of the posterior group genes (nanos, pumilio, oskar, valois, vasa, staufen and tudor) into a functional pathway. An activity present in the posterior pole plasm of wild-type embryos can restore normal abdominal development in posterior group mutants. This activity is synthesized during oogenesis and the gene nanos most likely encodes this activity. The other posterior group genes have distinct accessory functions: pumilio acts downstream of nanos and is required for the distribution or stability of the nanos-dependent activity in the embryo. Staufen, oskar, vasa, valois and tudor act upstream of nanos. Embryos from females mutant for these genes lack the specialized posterior pole plasm and consequently fail to form germ-cell precursors. We suggest that the products of these genes provide the physical structure necessary for the localization of nanos-dependent activity and of germ line determinants.