We have isolated and analyzed eight strict maternal effect mutations identifying four genes, par-1, par-2, par-3, and par-4, required for cytoplasmic localization in early embryos of the nematode C. elegans. Mutations in these genes lead to defects in cleavage patterns, timing of cleavages, and localization of germ line-specific P granules. Four mutations in par-1 and par-4 are fully expressed maternal effect lethal mutations; all embryos from mothers homozygous for these mutations arrest as amorphous masses of differentiated cells but are specifically lacking intestinal cells. Four mutations in par-2, par-3, and par-4 are incompletely expressed maternal effect lethal mutations and are also grandchildless; some embryos from homozygous mothers survive and grow to become infertile adults due to absence of functional germ cells. We propose that all of these defects result from the failure of a maternally encoded system for intracellular localization in early embryos.