The parameters determining the prevalence of the five actin gene transcripts that are differentially expressed during embryogenesis in the sea urchin Strongylocentrotus purpuratus were measured in vivo. These results and previous studies show that the developmental appearance of the cytoskeletal actin mRNA, CyI, CyIIa, CyIIb, and CyIIIa, and the muscle-specific actin message M, is transcriptionally regulated. The cytoskeletal actin genes are activated at the 64-cell stage or shortly thereafter. At this stage the specification of the early embryonic lineages has just completed. M gene transcription was detected only after muscle cells appear in the late embryo. The CyI, CyIIa, and CyIIb genes are transcribed at a moderate rate that does not vary significantly during development. In contrast, during late cleavage CyIIIa transcripts are produced at the maximum rate observed for structural genes in this embryo. In later stages, CyIIIa transcription is reduced at least 30-fold. The rate at which new actin transcripts enter the cytoplasm was also measured. The data show that essentially all primary actin gene transcripts are processed into mature messages. Actin message stability does not change during development. The mRNA half-life of the various messages was found to range from 4 hr to greater than 14 hr.