Translational recruitment of maternal mRNAs is an essential process in early metazoan development. To identify genes required for this regulatory pathway, we have examined a collection of Drosophila female-sterile mutants for defects in translation of maternal mRNAs. This strategy has revealed that maternal-effect mutations in the cortex and grauzone genes impair translational activation and cytoplasmic polyadenylation of bicoid and Toll mRNAs. Cortex embryos contain a bicoid mRNA indistinguishable in amount, localization, and structure from that in wild-type embryos. However, the bicoid mRNA in cortex embryos contains a shorter than normal polyadenosine (poly(A)) tail. Injection of polyadenylated bicoid mRNA into cortex embryos allows translation demonstrating that insufficient polyadenylation prevents endogenous bicoid mRNA translation. In contrast nanos mRNA, which is activated by a poly(A)-independent mechanism, is translated in cortex embryos, indicating that the block in maternal mRNA activation is specific to a class of mRNAs. Cortex embryos are fertilized, but arrest at the onset of embryogenesis. Characterization of grauzone mutations indicates that the phenotype of these embryos is similar to cortex. These results identify a fundamental pathway that serves a vital role in the initiation of development.