The specific functions of gene products frequently depend on the developmental context in which they are expressed. Thus, studies on gene function will benefit from systems that allow for manipulation of gene expression within model systems where the developmental context is well defined. Here we describe a system that allows for genetically controlled overexpression of any gene of interest under normal physiological conditions in the early Drosophila embryo. This regulated expression is achieved through the use of Drosophila lines that express a maternal mRNA for the yeast transcription factor GAL4. Embryos derived from females that express GAL4 maternally activate GAL4-dependent UAS transgenes at uniform levels throughout the embryo during the blastoderm stage of embryogenesis. The expression levels can be quantitatively manipulated through the use of lines that have different levels of maternal GAL4 activity. Specific phenotypes are produced by expression of a number of different developmental regulators with this system, including genes that normally do not function during Drosophila embryogenesis. Analysis of the response to overexpression of runt provides evidence that this pair-rule segmentation gene has a direct role in repressing transcription of the segment-polarity gene engrailed. The maternal GAL4 system will have applications both for the measurement of gene activity in reverse genetic experiments as well as for the identification of genetic factors that have quantitative effects on gene function in vivo.