The metazoan cyclin-dependent kinase Cdk7 was purified originally as part of a biochemical activity called CAK (Cdk-activating kinase) capable of phosphorylating and activating in vitro the Cdks that promote the different cell cycle transitions. Cdk7 is also found in the transcription factor complex TFIIH, suggesting that it participates in vivo in the control of RNA polymerase II. We have examined the physiological role of Cdk7 during the course of Drosophila development. By expressing dominant-negative forms of the kinase, we were able to alter Cdk7 function at given developmental stages. Expression of Cdk7 mutants severely delayed the onset of zygotic transcription in the early embryo, but did not alter the timing of the first 13 embryonic nuclear cycles. These results implicate Cdk7 in the control of transcriptional machinery in vivo. While cell cycle regulation is not sensitive to our manipulations of Cdk7 activity, it suggests that a distinct pool of CAK activity that is unaffected by expression of the cdk7(DN) mutants is present in these embryos.