We analyse the role of the empty spiracles (ems) gene in embryonic brain and ventral nerve cord development. ems is differentially expressed in the neurectoderm of the anterior head versus the trunk region of early embryos. A distal enhancer region drives expression in the deutocerebral brain anlage and a proximal enhancer region drives expression in the VNC and tritocerebral brain anlage. Mutant analysis indicates that in the anterior brain ems is necessary for regionalized neurogenesis in the deutocerebral and tritocerebral anlagen. In the posterior brain and VNC ems is necessary for correct axonal pathfinding of specific interneurons. Rescue experiments indicate that the murine Emx2 gene can partially replace the fly ems gene in CNS development.