The empty spiracles (ems) gene of Drosophila melanogaster is necessary for proper head formation and the development of the posterior spiracles. We have isolated a homeobox-containing gene, W13, by cross-homology using the Drosophila muscle segment homeobox gene (msh) as a probe. The W13 gene maps at 88A, where the ems locus has been previously localized genetically. The sequence alterations found in the W13 coding region from two mutant ems alleles show that W13 is the ems gene. A 2.4 kb RNA corresponding to the ems transcript is expressed from cellular blastoderm throughout all embryonic and larval stages. In situ hybridization to whole mount embryos reveals two domains of expression. During the cellular blastoderm stage ems is expressed in the developing head in a single anterior band. This is correlated with its possible function as an anterior gap gene that is expressed in the preantennal, antennal and intercalary segments and is required for the development of the antennal sense organ, the optic lobe and parts of the head skeleton. The early expression of the ems gene is controlled by the anterior morphogen bicoid (bcd). Using a gene fusion we identified a cis-acting element which is a target for the bcd gene product. Later during embryogenesis ems is expressed in lateral regions of each segment, where the tracheal pits form and lateral neuroblasts originate, as well as in the posterior spiracles. This late expression partially correlates with defects seen in the tracheal tree of ems embryos. In addition to a homeodomain, the N-terminal portion of the predicted protein sequence is very proline-rich, whereas the C-terminus has an acidic profile consistent with the role of the ems gene product as a transcription factor.