UNLABELLED: BACKGROUND: The gastrula stage represents the point in development at which the three primary germ layers diverge. At this point the gene regulatory networks that specify the germ layers are established and the genes that define the differentiated states of the tissues have begun to be activated. These networks have been well-characterized in sea urchins, but not in other echinoderms. Embryos of the brittle star Ophiocoma wendtii share a number of developmental features with sea urchin embryos, including the ingression of mesenchyme cells that give rise to an embryonic skeleton. Notable differences are that no micromeres are formed during cleavage divisions and no pigment cells are formed during development to the pluteus larval stage. More subtle changes in timing of developmental events also occur. To explore the molecular basis for the similarities and differences between these two echinoderms, we have sequenced and characterized the gastrula transcriptome of O. wendtii. METHODS: Development of Ophiocoma wendtii embryos was characterized and RNA was isolated from the gastrula stage. A transcriptome data base was generated from this RNA and was analyzed using a variety of methods to identify transcripts expressed and to compare those transcripts to those expressed at the gastrula stage in other organisms. RESULTS: Using existing databases, we identified brittle star transcripts that correspond to 3,385 genes, including 1,863 genes shared with the sea urchin Strongylocentrotus purpuratus gastrula transcriptome. We characterized the functional classes of genes present in the transcriptome and compared them to those found in this sea urchin. We then examined those members of the germ-layer specific gene regulatory networks (GRNs) of S. purpuratus that are expressed in the O. wendtii gastrula. Our results indicate that there is a shared 'genetic toolkit' central to the echinoderm gastrula, a key stage in embryonic development, though there are also differences that reflect changes in developmental processes. CONCLUSIONS: The brittle star expresses genes representing all functional classes at the gastrula stage. Brittle stars and sea urchins have comparable numbers of each class of genes and share many of the genes expressed at gastrulation. Examination of the brittle star genes in which sea urchin orthologs are utilized in germ layer specification reveals a relatively higher level of conservation of key regulatory components compared to the overall transcriptome. We also identify genes that were either lost or whose temporal expression has diverged from that of sea urchins.