Maf is a basic domain/leucine zipper domain protein originally identified as a proto-oncogene whose consensus target site in vitro, the T-MARE, is an extended version of an AP-1 site normally recognized by Fos and Jun. Maf and the closely related family members Neural retina leucine zipper (Nrl), L-Maf, and Krml1/MafB have been implicated in a wide variety of developmental and physiologic roles; however, mutations in vivo have been described only for Krml1/MafB, in which a loss-of-function causes abnormalities in hindbrain development due to failure to activate the Hoxa3 and Hoxb3 genes. We have used gene targeting to replace Maf coding sequences with those of lacZ, and have carried out a comprehensive analysis of embryonic expression and the homozygous mutant phenotype in the eye. Maf is expressed in the lens vesicle after invagination, and becomes highly upregulated in the equatorial zone, the site at which self-renewing anterior epithelial cells withdraw from the cell cycle and terminally differentiate into posterior fiber cells. Posterior lens cells in Maf(lacZ) mutant mice exhibit failure of elongation at embryonic day 11.5, do not express (&agr;)A- and all of the (beta)-crystallin genes, and display inappropriately high levels of DNA synthesis. This phenotype partially overlaps with those reported for gene targeting of Prox1 and Sox1; however, expression of these genes is grossly normal, as is expression of Eya1, Eya2, Pax6, and Sox2. Recombinant Maf protein binds to T-MARE sites in the (alpha)A-, (beta)B2-, and (beta)A4-crystallin promoters but fails to bind to a point mutation in the (alpha)A-crystallin promoter that has been shown previously to be required for promoter function. Our results indicate that Maf directly activates many if not all of the (beta)-crystallin genes, and suggest a model for coordinating cell cycle withdrawal with terminal differentiation.