BACKGROUND: Oocyte developmental competence is highly affected by the phase of ovarian follicular wave. Previous studies have shown that oocytes from subordinate follicles recovered at growth phase (day 3 after estrus) are developmentally more competent than those recovered at dominance phase (day 7 after estrus). However, the molecular mechanisms associated with these differences are not well elucidated. Therefore, the objective of this study was to investigate transcript abundance of bovine oocytes retrieved from small follicles at growth and dominance phases of the first follicular wave and to identify candidate genes related to oocyte developmental competence using cDNA microarray. RESULTS: Comparative gene expression analysis of oocytes from growth and dominance phases and subsequent data analysis using Significant Analysis of Microarray (SAM) revealed a total of 51 differentially regulated genes, including 36 with known function, 6 with unknown function and 9 novel transcripts. Real-time PCR has validated 10 transcripts revealed by microarray analysis and quantified 5 genes in cumulus cells derived from oocytes of both phases. The expression profile of 8 (80%) transcripts (ANAXA2, FL396, S100A10, RPL24, PP, PTTG1, MSX1 and BMP15) was in agreement with microarray data. Transcript abundance of five candidate genes in relation to oocyte developmental competence was validated using Brilliant Cresyl Blue (BCB) staining as an independent model. Furthermore, localization of mRNA and protein product of the candidate gene MSX1 in sections of ovarian follicles at days 0, 1, 3 and 7 of estrous cycle showed a clear fluorescent signal in both oocytes and cumulus cells with higher intensity in the former. Moreover, the protein product was detected in bovine oocytes and early cleavage embryos after fertilization with higher intensity around the nucleus. CONCLUSION: This study has identified distinct sets of differentially regulated transcripts between bovine oocytes recovered from small follicles at growth and dominance phases of the first follicular wave. The validation with independent model supports our notion that many of the transcripts identified here may represent candidate genes associated with oocyte developmental competence. Further specific functional analysis will provide insights into the exact role of these transcripts in oocyte competence and early embryonic development.