To illuminate the evolution and mechanisms of actinobacterial complexity, we evaluate the distribution and origins of known Streptomyces developmental genes and the developmental significance of actinobacteria-specific genes. As an aid, we developed the Actinoblast database of reciprocal blastp best hits between the Streptomyces coelicolor genome and more than 100 other actinobacterial genomes (http://streptomyces.org.uk/actinoblast/). We suggest that the emergence of morphological complexity was underpinned by special features of early actinobacteria, such as polar growth and the coupled participation of regulatory Wbl proteins and the redox-protecting thiol mycothiol in transducing a transient nitric oxide signal generated during physiologically stressful growth transitions. It seems that some cell growth and division proteins of early actinobacteria have acquired greater importance for sporulation of complex actinobacteria than for mycelial growth, in which septa are infrequent and not associated with complete cell separation. The acquisition of extracellular proteins with structural roles, a highly regulated extracellular protease cascade, and additional regulatory genes allowed early actinobacterial stationary phase processes to be redeployed in the emergence of aerial hyphae from mycelial mats and in the formation of spore chains. These extracellular proteins may have contributed to speciation. Simpler members of morphologically diverse clades have lost some developmental genes.