A distinct group of metalloproteases has been identified in the developing sea urchin embryo by gelatin substrate gel zymography, a highly sensitive protease detection assay. The developing Arbacia embryo exhibited four prominent bands of gelatinase activity with apparent molecular masses of 55, 50, 42 and 38 kDa. The activity of the 55, 42 and 38 kDa tissue gelatinases increased and that of the 50 kDa tissue gelatinase decreased during embryonic development. All four enzymes were EDTA- and 1,10-phenanthroline sensitive and phenyl methyl sulphonyl fluoride (PMSF) insensitive. None of the enzymes had detectable caseinolytic activity in casein substrate gels. Although the Arbacia enzymes possessed a number of properties that are characteristic of the mammalian matrix metalloprotease family, they did not appear to be converted to lower molecular weight forms by organomercurial treatment and are distinct in this aspect. The Arbacia metalloproteases are candidate enzymes for the tissue and matrix remodeling that occurs during sea urchin embryo development.