We have investigated the temporal and spatial patterns of accumulation of mRNAs randomly selected from the sea urchin gastrula polyadenylated RNA population. Three different assays show that the predominant temporal pattern of expression, exhibited by about three-fourths of these messages, consists of a large (mean 80-fold) increase in mRNA abundance between egg and gastrula stages. Most mRNAs are present in the maternal population and are detectable on blots as single mature-sized messages; however, a large number of high-molecular-weight, heterodisperse transcripts containing these same sequences also exist in the egg cytoplasm. The majority of gastrula messages are not embryo specific but are present in total adult urchin RNA at concentrations similar to those in embryos. Fine-scale RNA blot analysis indicates that the majority of mRNAs begin to accumulate at very early blastula stages, although there is considerable diversity in the time when these messages reach peak abundance. Most gastrula mRNAs are also spatially regulated during development. The observed distributions can be categorized into three major functional or regulatory classes: (1) Forty percent of mRNAs accumulate in cells which are cycling or preparing for growth. (2) About one-third of the messages accumulate in one or more differentiating cell types. (3) Only slightly more than one-fourth of the messages are present in all cell types throughout development. Most tissue-specific messages are relatively abundant, indicating that the differentiated functions of cells are executed through mRNAs operating at the level of hundreds of copies per cell. In contrast, most rare messages are expressed in most or all cell types, in which they function at only a few copies per cell. All messages which begin to accumulate before hatching blastula stage are initially distributed broadly, and their distribution becomes progressively restricted during embryogenesis. In contrast, all messages which begin to accumulate after the onset of gastrulation accumulate only in discrete subsets of cells. The results presented here illustrate much more extensive temporal regulation of gene expression during sea urchin embryogenesis than previously detected. This is accompanied by spatial regulation of expression of most genes which is itself temporally modulated as the cellular requirements for cell division and differentiation change during development.