Previously published experiments have shown that the endogenous Dfd gene can be ectopically activated by its own (heat-shock-driven) product in a subset of cells of different segments. This results in the differentiation of maxillary structures like cirri and mouth hooks in places where they normally do not appear, and represents a phenomenon of autocatalysis of homeotic gene function that differs from the normal activation process. We show that this out-of-context activation occurs in cells belonging to the anterior compartments of the three thoracic and the A1 to A8 abdominal segments and that it requires the normal function of the polarity genes wingless (wg) and engrailed (en). The wg product, in addition to that of Dfd, appears to be sufficient to activate the endogenous Dfd gene in many embryonic cells. We have studied the effect of several homeotic genes on Dfd activation and phenotypic expression: Scr, Antp, Ubx and Abd-B repress Dfd both transcriptionally and at the phenotypic level, if their products are in sufficient amounts. The endogenous abd-A gene does not have a noticeable effect, but when it is replaced by an hsp70-abd-A gene, which produces a high and uniform level of expression, the phenotypic expression of Dfd is suppressed. Our results also suggest that the differentiation of cirri is induced by Dfd-expressing cells in non-expressing neighboring cells, and that this interaction occurs across the parasegmental border.