An early set of blastomere specifications occurs during cleavage in the sea urchin embryo, the result of both conditional and autonomous processes, as proposed in the model for this embryo set forth in 1989. Recent experimental results have greatly illuminated the mechanisms of specification in some early embryonic territories, though others remain obscure. We review the progressive process of specification within given lineage elements, and with reference to the early axial organization of the embryo. Evidence for the conditional specification of the veg2 lineage subelement of the endoderm and other potential interblastomere signaling interactions in the cleavage-stage embryo are summarized. Definitive boundaries between mesoderm and endoderm territories of the vegetal plate, and between endoderm and overlying ectoderm, are not established until later in development. These processes have been clarified by numerous observations on spatial expression of various genes, and by elegant lineage labeling studies. The early specification events depend on regional mobilization of maternal regulatory factors resulting at once in the zygotic expression of genes encoding transcription factors, as well as downstream genes encoding proteins characteristic of the cell types that will much later arise from the progeny of the specified blastomeres. This embryo displays a maximal form of indirect development. The gene regulatory network underlying the embryonic development reflects the relative simplicity of the completed larva and of the processes required for its formation. The requirements for postembryonic adult body plan formation in the larval rudiment include engagement of a new level of genetic regulatory apparatus, exemplified by the Hox gene complex.