The rates of synthesis and turnover of histone mRNA in Drosophila embryos were determined by hybridization of in vivo and in vitro labeled embryonic RNA to Drosophila histone DNA of the recombinant plasmid cDm500. There is a large store of maternal histone mRNA, equivalent to at least 7 X 10(7) copies of each of the five classes of histone mRNA per embryo. Embryonic synthesis of histone mRNA begins at 90 min after oviposition, making the histone genes among the first to be transcribed by embryonic nuclei. Embryonic histone mRNA accumulates rapidly during the blastoderm and gastrula stages. The peak in the rate of histone mRNA synthesis per embryo coincides with the peak in the rate of DNA synthesis per embryo, which occurs at 6 hr after oviposition. After 6 hr, as the rate of DNA synthesis per embryo decreases, the rate of histone mRNA synthesis and the total mass of histone mRNA per embryo both drop sharply. The rate of histone mRNA synthesis per gene falls more than 60 fold in the first 13 hr after oviposition, from 1.3 -2.5 copies per gene-min at 2 hr to 0.02-0.03 copies per gene-min at 13 hr. From measurements of the mass of histone mRNA per embryo and of the rate of accumulation of newly synthesized histone mRNA at a number of stages of early embryogenesis we determined that the cytoplasmic half-life of histone mRNA decreases approximately 7 fold during early Drosophila development, from 2.3 hr at blastoderm to 20 min by the end of gastrulation. Thus the level of expression of histone genes in Drosophila development is controlled not only by the size of the maternal mRNA pool and changes in the rate of histone mRNA synthesis, but also by changes in the rate of histone mRNA turnover.