Background To understand gene expression networks leading to functional properties of the soybean seed, we have undertaken a detailed examination of soybean seed development during the stages of major accumulation of oils, proteins, and starches, as well as the desiccating and mature stages, using microarrays consisting of up to 27,000 soybean cDNAs. A subset of these genes on a highly-repetitive 70-mer oligonucleotide microarray was also used to support the results. Results It was discovered that genes related to cell growth and maintenance processes, as well as energy processes like photosynthesis, decreased in expression levels as the cotyledons approached the mature, dry stage. Genes involved with some storage proteins had their highest expression levels at the stage of highest fresh weight. However, genes encoding many transcription factors and DNA binding proteins showed higher expression levels in the desiccating and dry seeds than in most of the green stages. Conclusions Data on 27,000 cDNAs have been obtained over five stages of soybean development, including the stages of major accumulation of agronomically-important products, using two different types of microarrays. Of particular interest are the genes found to peak in expression at the desiccating and dry seed stages, such as those annotated as transcription factors, which may indicate the preparation of pathways that will be needed later in the early stages of imbibition and germination.