Rex (Ribosomal exchange) is a genetically identified repeated element within the ribosomal DNA (rDNA) of Drosophila melanogaster. Rex has a semidominant maternal effect that promotes exchange between and within rDNA arrays in the first few embryonic mitoses. Several of Rex's genetic properties suggest that its primary effect is rDNA-specific chromosome breakage that is resolved by recombination. We report here that rDNA crossovers are only a small, surviving minority of Rex-induced events. Cytology of embryos produced by Rex-homozygous females reveals obvious chromosome damage in at least a quarter of the embryos within the first three mitotic divisions. More than half of the embryos produced by Rex females die, and the developmental arrest is among the earliest reported for any maternal-effect lethal. The striking lethal phenotype suggests that embryos with early chromosome damage could be particularly fruitful subjects for analysis of the cell biology of early embryos.