We analyzed the histone mRNA population found in several adult tissues of the sea urchin Strongylocentrotus purpuratus and in testis of Lytechinus pictus. Unique species of H1 and H2b mRNAs encoding the sperm-specific histone subtypes can be found exclusively in testis RNA. S. purpuratus contains two distinct testis-specific H1 transcripts, while L. pictus contains one such transcript. Each of these mRNAs is larger than either early or late embryonic H1 mRNAs. Other somatic adult tissues contain transcripts derived from members of the late embryonic H1 histone gene family. S. purpuratus contains one H2b transcript found exclusively in testis, while L. pictus contains two such H2b mRNAs. Similarly, in tissues other than testis, late H2b transcripts were found. While there is no sperm-specific H2a protein, a limited set of late histone H2a genes encoding primarily the H2a-beta subtype is expressed in testis. The majority of the H2a protein found in diploid adult tissues is also the H2a-beta subtype; however, the size of the H2a transcripts differs between testis and other tissues. We conclude that different members of the late H2a gene family are differentially expressed in embryos and adult tissues. We prepared and characterized cDNA clones encoding the sperm-specific H2b protein as well as the H2a-beta protein found in testis.