The myoplasm of ascidian eggs is a localized cytoskeletal domain that is segregated to presumptive larval tail muscle cells during embryonic development. We have identified a cytoskeletal protein recognized by a vertebrate neurofilament monoclonal antibody (NN18) which is concentrated in the myoplasm in eggs and embryos of a variety of ascidian species. The NN18 antigen is localized in the periphery of unfertilized eggs, segregates with the myoplasm after fertilization, and enters the larval tail muscle cells during embryonic development. Western blots of one-dimensional and two-dimensional gels showed that the major component recognized by NN18 antibody is a 58 x 10(3) Mr protein (p58), which exists in at least three different isoforms. The enrichment of p58 in the Triton X-100-insoluble fraction of eggs and its reticular staining pattern in eggs and embryos suggests that it is a cytoskeletal protein. In subsequent experiments, p58 was used as a marker to determine whether changes in the myoplasm occur in eggs of anural ascidian species, i.e. those exhibiting a life cycle lacking tadpole larvae with differentiated muscle cells. Although p58 was localized in the myoplasm in eggs of four urodele ascidian species that develop into swimming tadpole larvae, this protein was distributed uniformly in eggs of three anural ascidian species. The eggs of two of these anural species contained the actin lamina, another component of the myoplasm, whereas the third anural species lacked the actin lamina. There was no detectible localization of p58 after fertilization or segregation into muscle lineage cells during cleavage of anural eggs. NN18 antigen was uniformly distributed in pre-vitellogenic oocytes and then localized in the perinuclear zone during vitellogenesis of urodele and anural ascidians. Subsequently, NN18 antigen was concentrated in the peripheral cytoplasm of post-vitellogenic oocytes and mature eggs of urodele, but not anural, ascidians. It is concluded that the myoplasm of ascidian eggs contains an intermediate filament-like cytoskeletal network which is missing in anural species that have modified or eliminated the tadpole larva.