Early embryogenesis in Caenorhabditis elegans is characterized by a series of unequal cleavages that mark the stepwise separation of somatic and germ lineages. We have developed an in situ hybridization protocol to examine the localization of specific maternal and embryonically transcribed messenger RNAs during these early cleavages. We detected three classes of maternal RNAs: RNAs that are maintained in all cells, RNAs that are maintained in germline cells but are lost from somatic cells, and a population of RNAs that are associated with the germline-specific P granules. We observed embryonically transcribed RNAs in somatic cells as early as the 4-cell stage. These transcripts were not detected in germline cells. These observations suggest that mechanisms which distinguish between soma and germline cause asymmetries in mRNA stability and transcription within the first few cleavages of C. elegans embryogenesis.