The basic structure of a rice inflorescence (the panicle) is determined by the pattern of branch formation, which is established at the early stages of panicle development. In this study we conducted global transcriptome profiling of the early stages of rice panicle development from phase transition to floral organ differentiation. To generate a meristem-specific gene-expression profile, shoot apical meristems (SAMs) and subsequently formed, very young panicles were collected manually and used for cDNA microarray analysis. We identified 357 out of 22,000 genes that are expressed differentially in the early stages of panicle development, and the 357 genes were classified into seven groups based on their temporal expression patterns. The most noticeable feature is that a fairly small number of genes, which are extensively enriched in transcription factors, are upregulated in the SAM immediately after phase transition. In situ hybridization analysis showed that each gene analysed exhibits a unique and interesting localization of mRNA. Remarkably, one of the transcription factors was proven to be a close downstream component of the pathway in which LAX, a major regulator of panicle branching, acts. These results suggest that our strategy--careful collection of meristems, global transcriptome analysis and subsequent in situ hybridization analysis--is useful not only to obtain a genome-wide view of gene expression, but also to reveal genetic networks controlling rice panicle development.