BACKGROUND: The ascomycete fungus Cercospora zeae-maydis is an aggressive foliar pathogen of maize that causes substantial losses annually throughout the Western Hemisphere. Despite its impact on maize production, little is known about the regulation of pathogenesis in C. zeae-maydis at the molecular level. The objectives of this study were to generate a collection of expressed sequence tags (ESTs) from C. zeae-maydis and evaluate their expression during vegetative, infectious, and reproductive growth. RESULTS: A total of 27,551 ESTs was obtained from five cDNA libraries constructed from vegetative and sporulating cultures of C. zeae-maydis. The ESTs, grouped into 4088 clusters and 531 singlets, represented 4619 putative unique genes. Of these, 36% encoded proteins similar (E value < or = 10(-05)) to characterized or annotated proteins from the NCBI non-redundant database representing diverse molecular functions and biological processes based on Gene Ontology (GO) classification. We identified numerous, previously undescribed genes with potential roles in photoreception, pathogenesis, and the regulation of development as well as Zephyr, a novel, actively transcribed transposable element. Differential expression of selected genes was demonstrated by real-time PCR, supporting their proposed roles in vegetative, infectious, and reproductive growth. CONCLUSION: Novel genes that are potentially involved in regulating growth, development, and pathogenesis were identified in C. zeae-maydis, providing specific targets for characterization by molecular genetics and functional genomics. The EST data establish a foundation for future studies in evolutionary and comparative genomics among species of Cercospora and other groups of plant pathogenic fungi.