Maternally provided mRNAs and proteins direct early development and activate the zygotic genome. Using microarrays, we examined the dynamics of transcriptomes during the early development of a basal chordate, Ciona intestinalis. Microarray analysis of unfertilized eggs, as well as 8-, and 16- and 32-cell embryos revealed that nearly half of the genes encoded in the genome were expressed maternally, and that approximately only one-fourth of these genes were expressed at similar levels among eggs obtained from different individuals. Genes encoding proteins involved in protein phosphorylation were enriched in this latter group. More than 90% of maternal RNAs were not reduced before the 16-cell stage when the zygotic developmental program begins. Additionally we obtained gene expression profiles of individual blastomeres from the 8- and 16-cell embryos. On the basis of these profiles, we concluded that the posterior-most localization, which has been reported for over 20 different transcripts, is the only major localization pattern of maternal transcripts. Our data also showed that maternal factors establish only nine distinct patterns of zygotic gene expression at the 16-cell stage. Therefore, one of the main developmental functions of maternally supplied information is to establish these nine distinct expression patterns in the 16-cell embryo. The dynamics of transcriptomes in early-stage embryos provides a foundation for studying how maternal information starts the zygotic program.