Background: Cell cycle checkpoints maintain the fidelity of the somatic cell cycle by ensuring that one step in the cell cycle is not initiated until a previous step has been completed. The extent to which cell cycle checkpoints play a role in the initial rapid embryonic divisions of higher eukaryotes is unclear. The initial syncytial divisions of Drosophila embryogenesis provide an excellent opportunity to address this issue as they are amenable to both genetic and cellular analysis. In order to study the relevance of cell cycle checkpoints in early Drosophila embryogenesis, we have characterized the maternal-effect grapes (grp) mutation, which may affect feedback control during early syncytial divisions. Results: The Drosophila grp gene encodes a predicted serine/threonine kinase and has significant homology to chk1/rad27, a gene required for a DNA damage checkpoint in Schizosaccharomyces pombe. Relative to normal embryos, embryos derived from grp-mutant mothers exhibit elevated levels of DNA damage. During nuclear cycles t 2 and 13, alignment of the chromosomes on the metaphase plate was disrupted in grp-derived embryos, and the embryos underwent a progression of cytological events that were indistinguishable from those observed in normal syncytial embryos exposed to X-irradiation. The mutant embryos also failed to progress through a regulatory transition in Cdc2 activity that normally occurs during interphase of nuclear cycle 14. Conclusions: We propose that the primary defect in grp-derived embryos is a failure to replicate or repair DNA completely before mitotic entry during the late syncytial divisions. This suggests that wild-type grp functions in a developmentally regulated DNA replication/damage checkpoint operating during the late syncytial divisions. These results are discussed with respect to the proposed function of the chk1/rad27 gene.