Embryonic dorsoventral polarity in Drosophila melanogaster is determined by a maternally-encoded signal transduction pathway whose effector molecule is the Rel transcription factor, Dorsal. The activity of this signal transduction pathway gives rise to a ventral-to-dorsal nuclear gradient of Dorsal, which then activates and represses several zygotic target genes in distinct domains. The dorsoventral system represents the best characterized of the Rel pathways. Its components have now been ordered and their biochemical roles are becoming clearer. Key components of the dorsoventral pathway show striking similarity to those involved with the regulation of vertebrate Rel family members. Additional Drosophila Rel family members have been identified and implicated in the innate immune response. The dorsoventral pathway is also remarkably conserved in this response. This conservation underscores the relevance of the dorsoventral system for our understanding of the entire Rel family.