Activation of receptor tyrosine kinases triggers many developmental decisions, yet we do not understand how activation of a single receptor can be transduced into different cell responses. The torso pathway in Drosophila provides a model to address this issue since it generates more than one response in the embryo. The torso receptor tyrosine kinase is activated at the embryonic poles under the control of trunk, a protein with similarities to several types of extracellular growth factors. Activation of torso is responsible for the development of a variety of structures, whose appearance can be correlated with activation of at least two different genes along the terminal region. In this study we have analyzed mutations in torso and trunk that express low levels of the respective proteins. We show that different amounts of torso or trunk molecules correlate with the expression of different zygotic genes, implicating changes in the number of activated torso molecules as one of the mechanisms defining differential gene expression. We suggest that variation in the number of activated receptors at the cell surface is a general mechanism that leads to differential gene expression and thus the generation of different cell responses.