The effect of ultraviolet (uv) light on embryonic development was examined in the ascidian Styela clava. uv irradiation (3.0 x 10(-3) J mm-2) of the entire surface of fertilized eggs during ooplasmic segregation prevented gastrulation, sensory cell induction, and embryonic axis formation. The uv-irradiated embryos completed ooplasmic segregation and cleaved normally, but vegetal blastomeres did not invaginate at the beginning of gastrulation, sensory cells in the larval brain did not develop tyrosinase or melanin pigment, and the larval tail did not develop. Endoderm, epidermis, and muscle cells differentiated in the uv-irradiated embryos, however, as evidenced by expression of endodermal alkaline phosphatase (AP), an epidermal-specific antigen, and alpha-actin, myosin heavy chain, and acetylcholinesterase (AChE) in muscle cells. Higher doses of uv light (6.0-9.0 x 10(-3) J mm-2) suppressed expression of the epidermal antigen and muscle cell markers, whereas the development of endodermal AP was insensitive. Irradiation at various times between fertilization and the 16-cell stage revealed that gastrulation, sensory cell differentiation, and axis formation are sensitive to uv light only during ooplasmic segregation. Irradiation of restricted regions of the zygote during ooplasmic segregation showed that the uv-sensitive components are localized in the vegetal hemisphere. The absorption characteristics of the uv-sensitive components suggest that they are nucleic acids. The results show that uv-sensitive components that specify gastrulation, sensory cell induction, and embryonic axis formation are localized in the vegetal hemisphere of Styela eggs.