Sea urchin (Lytechinus anemesis) embryos were used as an experimental system to investigate the mechanisms of the developmental toxicity of creosote, one of the most widely used wood preserving chemicals, as well as some of its polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) constituents (phenanthrene, fluoranthene, fluorene, pyrene and quinoline). Data suggest that creosote and PAHs affect axial development and patterning in sea urchin embryos by disrupting the regulation of beta-catenin, a crucial transcriptional co-activator of specific target genes in the Wnt/wg signaling pathway. When ciliated blastula stage embryos were exposed to these compounds, they developed into exogastrulae with completely evaginated archentera, demonstrating that these chemicals disrupt axial development and patterning. This response occurred in a dose-dependent fashion, with the EC(50) of creosote for complete exogastrulation being 1.57 ppm, while the EC(50)s of the PAHs ranged from 0.41 ppm (2.0 microM) to 4.33 ppm (33.5 microM). Morphologically, the exogastrulae that developed from embryos exposed to creosote and PAHs appeared to be identical to those that resulted from exposure to lithium chloride, a classical agent known to induce vegetalization and exogastrulation in sea urchin embryos. Immunological studies using antibodies against beta-catenin, a multi-functional protein known to be involved in cell-cell adhesion and cell fate specification during embryonic development, revealed high levels of nuclear accumulation of beta-catenin by cells of creosote- and PAH-exposed embryos, irrespective of their positions in the developing embryo. Dissociated embryonic cells cultured in the presence of these agents rapidly responded in a similar fashion. Since beta-catenin accumulation occurs in nuclei of several types of cancer cells, it is possible this may be a general mechanism by which PAHs affect a variety of different cell types.