Crocins are soluble apocarotenoids that mainly accumulate in the stigma tissue of Crocus sativus and provide the characteristic red color to saffron spice, in addition to being responsible for many of the medicinal properties of saffron. Crocin biosynthesis and accumulation in saffron is developmentally controlled, and the concentration of crocins increases as the stigma develops. Until now, little has been known about the molecular mechanisms governing crocin biosynthesis and accumulation. This study aimed to identify the first set of gene regulatory processes implicated in apocarotenoid biosynthesis and accumulation. RESULTS: A large-scale crocin-mediated RNA-seq analysis was performed on saffron and two other Crocus species at two early developmental stages coincident with the initiation of crocin biosynthesis and accumulation. Pairwise comparison of unigene abundance among the samples identified potential regulatory transcription factors (TFs) involved in crocin biosynthesis and accumulation. We found a total of 131 (up- and downregulated) TFs representing a broad range of TF families in the analyzed transcriptomes; by comparison with the transcriptomes from the same developmental stages from other Crocus species, a total of 11 TF were selected as candidate regulators controlling crocin biosynthesis and accumulation. CONCLUSIONS: Our study generated gene expression profiles of stigmas at two key developmental stages for apocarotenoid accumulation in three different Crocus species. Differential gene expression analyses allowed the identification of transcription factors that provide evidence of environmental and developmental control of the apocarotenoid biosynthetic pathway at the molecular level.