The maternal gene dorsal encodes a nuclear protein acting as a morphogen that determines the size and fate of regions along the dorsal-ventral axis of the Drosophila embryo. From previous genetic and biochemical studies it was hypothesized that dorsal might be responsible for the activation of the zygotic gene twist. In this report, regulatory sequences required for correct spatial and quantitative expression of twist are defined, by using phenotypic rescue and studying twist-beta-galactosidase expression. In addition, by transient cotransfection assays, we show that the dorsal protein specifically activates expression from the twist promoter. We demonstrate that dorsal is a sequence-specific DNA-binding protein that recognizes a motif similar to that recognized by the mammalian transcriptional activator NF-kappa B.