A widely used mechanism for pattern formation is based on positional information: cells acquire positional identities as in a coordinate system and then interpret this information according to their genetic constitution and developmental history. In Drosophila maternal factors establish the axes and set up a maternal system of positional information on which further patterning is built. There is a cascade of gene activity which leads both to the development of periodic structures, the segments, and to their acquiring a unique identity. This involves the binding of transcription factors to regulatory regions of genes to produce sharp thresholds. Many of the genes involved in these processes, particularly the Hox complex, are also involved in specifying the body axis and limbs of vertebrates. There are striking similarities in the mechanisms for spcifying and recording positional identity in Drosophila and vertebrates. © 1994 Wiley-Liss, Inc.