Abstract The expression of small heat shock proteins is tightly regulated during development in multiple organisms. As housekeeping proteins, small heat shock proteins help protect cells from apoptosis, stabilize the cytoskeleton and contribute to proteostasis. Consistently, depletion of one small heat shock protein is usually not detrimental due to a certain level of redundancy between the functions of each small heat shock protein. However, while their stress-induced expression is regulated by heat shock factors, their constitutive expression is under the control of other specific transcription factors, suggesting the existence of very specialized functions. This review focuses on the expression patterns and functions of small heat shock proteins in various organisms during development. This article is part of a Directed Issue entitled: Small HSPs in physiology and pathology.