A gradient of the maternal morphogen dorsal (dl) establishes dorsal-ventral (D-V) polarity in the early Drosophila embryo. The dl concentration gradient is initiated by regulated nuclear transport, and only protein that enters nuclei is active in the D-V patterning process. Here we show that dl is a DNA-binding protein that specifically interacts with distal sequences of the zerknüllt (zen) promoter, one of the genetic targets of the morphogen. These zen sequences have the properties of a silencer element and can act over long distances to repress the expression of a heterologous promoter. The dl protein recognizes a sequence motif similar to that of the mammalian transcriptional activator NF-kappa B, which was shown to contain extensive homology with dl and the oncoprotein rel. We present evidence that the DNA-binding activity of the dl protein is mediated by the region of homology (the rel domain) conserved in the rel and NF-kappa B proteins.