The engrailed gene product of Drosophila specifies the fate of a subset of cells in each segment. Our studies of engrailed regulation suggest that fate determination is an elaborate, multistep process. At the time in embryogenesis when the engrailed-dependent cell fate is probably determined, four modes of control act in an overlapping progression to govern engrailed expression. After activation by pair-rule genes, both an extracellular signal, wingless, and autoregulation are required for engrailed expression. Autoregulation graduates to wingless independence, but is transient, and is superseded by an engrailed-independent mode of maintenance.