Little is known about the genetic and biochemical mechanisms that underlie red algal development, for example, why the group failed to evolve complex parenchyma and tissue differentiation. Here we examined expressed sequence tag (EST) data from two closely related species, Porphyra umbilicalis (L.) J. Agardh and P. purpurea (Roth) C. Agardh, for conserved developmental regulators known from model eukaryotes, and their expression levels in several developmental stages. Genes for most major developmental families were present, including MADS-box and homeodomain (HD) proteins, SNF2 chromatin-remodelers, and proteins involved in sRNA biogenesis. Some of these genes displayed altered expression correlating with different life history stages or cell types. Notably, two ESTs encoding HD proteins showed eightfold higher expression in the P. purpurea sporophyte (conchocelis) than in the gametophyte (blade), whereas two MADS domain-containing paralogs showed significantly different patterns of expression in the conchocelis and blade respectively. These developmental gene families do not appear to have undergone the kinds of dramatic expansions in copy number found in multicellular land plants and animals, which are important for regulating developmental processes in those groups. Analyses of small RNAs did not validate the presence of miRNAs, but homologs of Argonaute were present. In general, it appears that red algae began with a similar molecular toolkit for directing development as did other multicellular eukaryotes, but probably evolved altered roles for many key proteins, as well as novel mechanisms yet to be discovered.