Ultraviolet (uv) irradiation of the vegetal hemisphere of fertilized eggs during ooplasmic segregation inhibits subsequent gastrulation and axis formation in ascidian embryos. The molecular basis of this phenomenon was investigated in by comparing in vivo protein synthesis and in vitro mRNA translation in normal and uv-irradiated embryos of the ascidian Styela clava. Analysis of protein synthesis by [35S]methionine incorporation, two-dimensional (2D) gel electrophoresis, and autoradiography showed that only 21 (or about 5%) of 433 labeled polypeptides were missing or decreased in labeling intensity in uv-irradiated embryos. The most prominent of these was a 30,000 molecular weight (pI 6.0) polypeptide (p30). Extraction of gastrulae with the nonionic detergent Triton X-100 showed that p30 is retained in the detergent insoluble residue, suggesting that it is associated with the cytoskeleton. Several lines of evidence suggest that p30 may be involved in axis formation. First, p30 labeling peaks during gastrulation, when the embryonic axis is being established. Second, axis formation and p30 labeling are abolished by the same threshold uv dose, which is distinct from that required to inactivate muscle cell development. Third, the uv sensitivity period for abolishing p30 labeling and axis formation are both restricted to ooplasmic segregation. In vitro translation of egg RNA followed by 2D gel electrophoresis and autoradiography of the protein products showed that p30 is encoded by a maternal mRNA. The translation of p30 mRNA was abolished by uv irradiation of fertilized eggs during ooplasmic segregation suggesting that this message is a uv-sensitive target. The results are consistent with the hypothesis that uv irradiation blocks gastrulation and axis formation by inhibiting the translation of maternal mRNA localized in the vegetal hemisphere of the fertilized egg.