The Drosophila esc-like gene (escl) encodes a protein very similar to ESC. Like ESC, ESCL binds directly to the E(Z) histone methyltransferase via its WD region. In contrast to ESC, which is present at highest levels during embryogenesis and low levels thereafter, ESCL is continuously present throughout development and in adults. ESC/E(Z) complexes are present at high levels mainly during embryogenesis but ESCL/E(Z) complexes are found throughout development. While depletion of either ESCL or ESC by RNAi in S2 and Kc cells has little effect on E(Z)-mediated methylation of histone H3 lysine 27 (H3K27), simultaneous depletion of ESCL and ESC results in loss of di- and trimethyl-H3K27, indicating that either ESC or ESCL is necessary and sufficient for di- and trimethylation of H3K27 in vivo. While E(Z) complexes in S2 cells contain predominantly ESC, in ESC-depleted S2 cells, ESCL levels rise dramatically and ESCL replaces ESC in E(Z) complexes. A mutation in escl that produces very little protein is viable and exhibits no phenotypes but strongly enhances esc mutant phenotypes, suggesting they have similar functions. esc escl double homozygotes die at the end of the larval period, indicating that the well-known "maternal rescue" of esc homozygotes requires ESCL. Furthermore, maternal and zygotic over-expression of escl fully rescues the lethality of esc null mutant embryos that contain no ESC protein, indicating that ESCL can substitute fully for ESC in vivo. These data thus indicate that ESC and ESCL play similar if not identical functions in E(Z) complexes in vivo. Despite this, when esc is expressed normally, escl appears to be entirely dispensable, at least for development into morphologically normal fertile adults. Furthermore, the larval lethality of esc escl double mutants, together with the lack of phenotypes in the escl mutant, further suggests that in wild-type (esc(+)) animals it is the post-embryonic expression of esc, not escl, that is important for development of normal adults. Thus escl appears to function in a backup capacity during development that becomes important only when normal esc expression is compromised.