Spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) is a common disorder characterized by loss of lower motor neurones of the spinal cord. The disease is caused by mutations in the survival motor neurone (SMN) gene. SMN is ubiquitously expressed and evolutionarily conserved, and its role in RNA processing has been well established. However, these properties do not explain the observed specificity of motor neurone death. To gain further insight into the function of SMN, we have isolated and characterized the Caenorhabditis elegans orthologue of the SMN gene (CeSMN). Here we show that CeSMN is transmitted maternally as a predominantly nuclear factor, which remains present in all the blastomeres throughout embryonic development and onwards into adulthood. In adult nematodes, a CeSMN-green fluorescent protein fusion protein is expressed in a number of cell types including the germline. Both disruption of the endogenous CeSMN function and overexpression of the gene result in a severe decrease in the number of progeny and in locomotive defects. In addition, its transient knockdown leads to sterility caused by a defect in germ cell maturation. The expression pattern and functional properties so far observed for CeSMN, together with its unusual behaviour in the germline, indicate that SMN may be involved in specific gene expression events at these very early developmental stages. We have also identified a deletion in the CeSMN promoter region in egl-32. This mutant may become a useful genetic tool with which to explore regulation of CeSMN and hence provide possible clues for novel therapeutic strategies for SMA.