We have determined spatial patterns of expression of individual actin genes in embryos of the sea urchin Strongylocentrotus purpuratus. Radioactively labeled probes specific for each of five cytoplasmic-type (Cy) and the single muscle-type (M) mRNAs were hybridized in situ to sections of fixed embryos. M actin mRNA appears only late in development and is confined to a few cells associated with the coelomic rudiments. The five Cy mRNAs fall into three sets, whose times and sites of expression during development are highly distinctive. Different cell lineages express messages of one or more of these sets, but never all three. Although all Cy actin mRNAs exhibit monophasic accumulation in the RNA of whole embryos during the course of development, such accumulation in many cases results from the summation of both increases and decreases in abundance within individual sets of cells. Within the genomic linkage group CyI-CyIIa-CyIIb, expression of CyI and CyIIb appears to be co-ordinate, and quite distinct from that of CyIIa. CyI and CyIIb are expressed in all lineages at some point in embryogenesis, but confined mainly to oral ectoderm and portions of the gut of the pluteus larva. CyIIa mRNAs are restricted to mesenchyme lineages throughout late gastrula stage, and subsequently accumulate in parts of the gut. The CyIIIa and CyIIIb genes, which form a separate linkage group, are expressed only in aboral ectoderm and its precursors. Furthermore, CyIII messages are the only detectable actin mRNAs in this cell lineage after late blastula stage.