Specification of some cell fates in the early Caenorhabditis elegans embryo is mediated by cytoplasmic localization under control of the maternal genome. Using nine newly isolated mutations, and two existing mutations, we have analyzed the role of the maternally expressed gene par-4 in cytoplasmic localization. We recovered seven new par-4 alleles in screens for maternal effect lethal mutations that result in failure to differentiate intestinal cells. Two additional par-4 mutations were identified in noncomplementation screens using strains with a high frequency of transposon mobility. All 11 mutations cause defects early in development of embryos produced by homozygous mutant mothers. Analysis with a deficiency in the region indicates that it33 is a strong loss-of-function mutation. par-4(it33) terminal stage embryos contain many cells, but show no morphogenesis, and are lacking intestinal cells. Temperature shifts with the it57ts allele suggest that the critical period for both intestinal differentiation and embryo viability begins during oogenesis, about 1.5 hr before fertilization, and ends before the four-cell stage. We propose that the primary function of the par-4 gene is to act as part of a maternally encoded system for cytoplasmic localization in the first cell cycle, with par-4 playing a particularly important role in the determination of intestine. Analysis of a par-4; par-2 double mutant suggests that par-4 and par-2 gene products interact in this system.