Sea urchins are major components of marine communities. Their grazing limits algal biomass, and they are preyed upon by many predators. Purple sea urchins (Strongylocentrotus purpuratus) are among the best studied species. They live in environments that alternate between two stable states: luxuriant, species-rich kelp forests and sea urchin-dominated ``barrens.'' The transition from one state to the other can be initiated by several factors, including the abundance of algal food, predators, storm intensities, and incidence of disease. Purple sea urchins compete with other grazers, some of which are important fishery resources (such as abalones and red sea urchins), and they are harvested for scientific research. Revelations from their genome will lead to a better understanding of how they maintain their ecological importance, and may in turn enhance their economic potential.