BACKGROUND: Asymmetric division of the C. elegans zygote is due to the posterior-directed movement of the mitotic spindle during metaphase and anaphase. During this movement along the anterior-posterior axis, the spindle oscillates transversely. These motions are thought to be driven by a force-generating complex-possibly containing the motor protein cytoplasmic dynein-that is located at the cell cortex and pulls on microtubules growing out from the spindle poles. A theoretical analysis indicates that the oscillations might arise from mechanical coordination of the force-generating motors, and this coordination is mediated by the load dependence of the motors' detachment from the microtubules. The model predicts that the motor activity must exceed a threshold for oscillations to occur. RESULTS: We have tested the existence of a threshold by using RNA interference to gradually reduce the levels of dynein light intermediate chain as well as GPR-1 and GPR-2 that are involved in the G protein-mediated regulation of the force generators. We found an abrupt cessation of oscillations as expected if the motor activity dropped below a threshold. Furthermore, we can account for the complex choreography of the mitotic spindle-the precise temporal coordination of the buildup and die-down of the transverse oscillations with the posterior displacement-by a gradual increase in the processivity of a single type of motor machinery during metaphase and anaphase. CONCLUSIONS: The agreement between our results and modeling suggests that the force generators themselves have the intrinsic capability of generating oscillations when opposing forces exceed a threshold.