The Drosophila homeotic gene proboscipedia (pb) specifies labial identify and directs formation of the adult distiproboscis from the labial imaginal discs. pb null alleles result in the homeotic transformation of the distiproboscis into prothoracic (T1) legs [Kaufman (1978) Genetics 90, 579-596; Pultz et al. (1988) Genes Dev. 2, 901-920]. Homology with other transcription factors, localization to the nucleus, and restricted embryonic and imaginal expression implicate the pb protein (PB) as a transcription factor. In order to examine the possible roles that PB may play in the specification of adult mouthparts, we have expressed PB in cells of wing, leg and eye-antennal imaginal discs and assayed for effects on the development of adult structures. We report here that the ectopic expression of PB in the imaginal discs under the control of the inducible GAL4 system [Brand and Perrimon (1993) Development 118, 401-415] alters the developmental program of adult legs into maxillary or labial palps. These homeotic transformations have an equal effect on all three sets of legs, indicating an activity that is not solely dependent upon the unique combinations of other homeotic genes present in each of the leg discs. Segment polarity genes required for establishing the AP compartment boundary were found to be undisturbed by ectopic PB. Furthermore, normal patterns of apoptosis are observed in animals expressing ectopic PB, indicating that PB does not alter or affect cell death. These results suggest that molecular events occurring downstream of the establishment of the compartment boundary are affected by ectopic PB expression in imaginal discs and point to a general role in 'palp' formation in addition to the specification of labial identity.