Defining the physiological mechanisms that set metabolic rates and the 'cost of living' is important for understanding the energy costs of development. Embryos and larvae of the sea urchin Lytechinus pictus (Verrill) were used to test hypotheses regarding differential costs of protein synthesis in animals differing in size, rates of protein synthesis, and physiological feeding states. For embryos, the rate of protein synthesis was 0.22+/-0.014 ng protein embryo(-1) h(-1) (mean +/- s.e.m.) and decreased in unfed larvae to an average rate of 0.05+/-0.001 ng protein larva(-1) h(-1). Fed larvae had rates of synthesis that were up to 194 times faster than unfed larvae (9.7+/-0.81 ng protein larva(-1) h(-1)). There was no significant difference, however, in the cost of protein synthesis between these larvae with very different physiological states. Furthermore, the cost of synthesis in the larval stages was also similar to costs measured for blastula and gastrula embryos of 8.4+/-0.99 J mg(-1) protein synthesized. The cost of protein synthesis was obtained using both direct ('inhibitor') and indirect ('correlative') measurements; both methods gave essentially identical results. Protein synthesis accounted for up to 54+/-8% of metabolic rate in embryos. Percent of metabolism accounted for by protein synthesis in larvae was dependent on their physiological feeding state, with protein synthesis accounting for 16+/-4% in unfed larvae and 75+/-11% in fed larvae. This regulation of metabolic rate was due to differential rates of synthesis for a fixed energy cost per unit mass of protein synthesized. The cost of synthesizing a unit of protein did not change with increasing rates of protein synthesis. We conclude that the cost of protein synthesis is independent of the rate of synthesis, developmental stage, size and physiological feeding state during sea urchin development.