The earliest stages of embryonic development in all animals examined rely on maternal gene products that are generated during oogenesis and supplied to the egg. The period of maternal control of embryonic development varies among animals according to the onset of zygotic transcription and the persistence of maternal gene products. This maternal regulation has been little studied in vertebrates, owing to the difficulty in manipulating maternal gene function and lack of basic molecular information. However, recent maternal-effect screens in the zebrafish have generated more than 40 unique mutants that are providing new molecular entry points to the maternal control of early vertebrate development. Here we discuss recent studies of 12 zebrafish mutant genes that illuminate the maternal molecular controls on embryonic development, including advances in the regulation of animal-vegetal polarity, egg activation, cleavage development, body plan formation, tissue morphogenesis, microRNA function and germ cell development.