Segmental pattern in the Drosophila embryo is established by two maternal factors localized to the anterior and posterior poles of the egg cell. Here we provide molecular evidence that the localized posterior factor is the RNA of the nanos (nos) gene. nos RNA is localized to the posterior pole of early embryos, and nos protein acts at a distance to direct abdomen formation. Synthetic nos RNA has biological activity identical to that of the posterior pole plasm. Injection of nos RNA rescues the segmentation defect of embryos derived from females mutant for all nine known posterior group genes. Injection of nos RNA into the anterior is able to direct formation of ectopic posterior structures. Our results demonstrate that a localized source of nos RNA is sufficient to specify abdominal segmentation and imply that other posterior group genes are required for localization, stabilization, or distribution of the nos gene product.