Coelomocytes are considered to be immune effectors of sea urchins. Subpopulations of coelomocytes can be purified from a total cell suspension. The proportion of each cell type can vary not only among species, but also between individuals of the same species, according to their size and physiological conditions. We tested the hypothesis that coelomocytes play a role in defense mechanisms activated by adverse external conditions. Total coelomocytes from control and stressed (temperature, pollution, and injuries) sea urchins were analyzed for their expression of the 70 kDa heat shock protein (hsp70), a well recognized stress marker. Further analysis was performed by separation of coelomocytes into subpopulations by step gradients. We demonstrated that sea urchin coelomocytes respond to temperature shock and to polluted seawater by the upregulation of hsp70. Among coelomocytes certain cells, known as red spherula cells, showed a great increase in number in animals collected from polluted seawaters or subjected to "accidental" injury. The present study confirms the immunological function of sea urchin coelomocytes, as indicated by the upregulation of the hsp70 molecular marker, and suggests that sea urchin coelomocytes can be utilized as sensitive bio-indicators of environmental stress.