The role of homologous recombination processes in the repair of severe forms of DNA damage is reviewed, with particular attention to the functions of members of the recA/RAD51 family of genes. In the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae, several of the gene products involved in homologous recombination repair (HRR) have been studied in detail, and a picture is beginning to emerge of the repair mechanism for DNA double-strand breaks. Knowledge is fragmentary for other eukaryotic organisms and for other types of DNA damage. In mammalian cells, while it has been known for some years that HRR occurs, the relative importance of the process in repairing DNA damage is unknown and very few of the gene products involved have been identified. Very recently, a number of RAD51-like genes have been identified in mammals, either through cloning genes complementing cell lines sensitive to DNA-damaging agents (XRCC2, XRCC3), or through homology searches (RAD51L1, RAD51L2, RAD51L3). As yet the role of these genes and their possible functions are speculative, although the combination of sequence conservation and gene expression patterns suggest that they function in HRR pathways.