The basic helix-loop-helix (bHLH) proteins are transcription factors that play important roles in many biological processes, including the development of various animals. We identified 46 genes encoding bHLH proteins in the draft genome sequence of the basal chordate Ciona intestinalis. These 46 genes represent an almost complete set of bHLH genes in this animal. This number is comparable to 39 and 58 bHLH genes in those of Caenorhabditis elegans and Drosophila melanogaster but is much smaller than the 125 in the human genome. Genes that encode NeuroD, Beta3, Oligo, SCL, NSCL, SRC, Clock and Bmal were not found in the Ciona genome. We could also identify groucho and CBP orthologues in the Ciona genome. In addition, the comparison between the numbers of orthologous human and Ciona bHLH factors reveals the simplicity of the Ciona genome, in accordance with its phylogenetic position within chordates. The present analysis provides an insight into the basic set of bHLH genes that the last common ancestor of ascidians and vertebrates had, and will provide important background information for future studies using ascidians as a model system for vertebrate development.