The study of the sea urchin embryo has contributed importantly to our ideas about embryogenesis. This essay re-examines some issues where the concerns of classical experimental embryology and cell and molecular biology converge. The sea urchin egg has an inherent animal-vegetal polarity. An egg fragment that contains both animal and vegetal material will produce a fairly normal larva. However, it is not clear to what extent the oral-aboral axis is specified in embryos developing from meridional fragments. Newly available markers of the oral-aboral axis allow this issue to be settled. When equatorial halves, in which animal and vegetal hemispheres are separated, are allowed to develop, the animal half forms a ciliated hollow ball. The vegetal half, however, often forms a complete embryo. This result is not in accord with the double gradient model of animal and vegetal characteristics that has been used to interpret almost all defect, isolation and transplantation experiments using sea urchin embryos. The effects of agents used to animalize and vegetalize embryos are also due for re-examination. The classical animalizing agent, Zn2+, causes developmental arrest, not expression of animal characters. On the other hand, Li+, a vegetalizing agent, probably changes the determination of animal cells. The stability of these early determinative steps may be examined in dissociation-reaggregation experiments, but this technique has not been exploited extensively. The morphogenetic movements of primary mesenchyme are complex and involve a number of interactions. It is curious that primary mesenchyme is dispensable in skeleton formation since in embryos devoid of primary mesenchyme, the secondary mesenchyme cells will form skeletal elements. It is likely that during its differentiation the primary mesenchyme provides some of its own extracellular microenvironment in the form of collagen and proteoglycans. The detailed form of spicules made by primary mesenchyme is determined by cooperation between the epithelial body wall, the extracellular material and the inherent properties of primary mesenchyme cells. Gastrulation in sea urchins is a two-step process. The first invagination is a buckling, the mechanism of which is not understood. The secondary phase in which the archenteron elongates across the blastocoel is probably driven primarily by active cell repacking. The extracellular matrix is important for this repacking to occur, but the basis of the cellular-environmental interaction is not understood.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS)

This content is only available via PDF.