We have cloned a gene from the nematode C. elegans that is closely related to the vertebrate MyoD gene family. The nematode gene product, CeMyoD, is a nuclear protein that is expressed specifically in body wall muscle cells. Antibody staining of early embryos shows that CeMyoD accumulates in early blastomeres that will subsequently produce only body wall muscle cells. CeMyoD is not detected in pharyngeal muscle cells or in nonmyogenic lineages. A CeMyoD-beta-galactosidase fusion gene is accurately expressed in myogenic cells that also express CeMyoD. In addition, the beta-galactosidase reporter is expressed as early as the 28 cell stage of embryogenesis in specific blastomeres prior to their clonal commitment to body wall muscle. This early fusion gene activity reveals that part of the specificity for CeMyoD transcription can arise very early in development and that subsequently, negative events may restrict CeMyoD expression in progeny cells not destined to become muscle.