Post-transcriptional gene silencing (PTGS) is a fundamental regulatory mechanism operating in diverse types of organisms, but the cellular components of the gene silencing machinery and the regulation of the process are not understood. Recent findings that cytoplasmically replicating RNA viruses act as both targets and inducers of PTGS has led to the idea that PTGS may have evolved as an anti-viral defense mechanism in plants. Consistent with this hypothesis, it has been found that certain plant viruses encode proteins that suppress PTGS. From a practical standpoint, an understanding of the mechanisms by which viruses regulate PTGS may well lead to better ways to control gene expression in plants. It is often desirable to overexpress selected beneficial genes or to silence detrimental ones in order to confer a particular phenotype. Induction of PTGS using RNA viruses as vectors or as transgenes provides a reliable and efficient way to interfere with the expression of a specific gene or with a family of genes. Conversely, expression of viral suppressors has significant potential to improve yields in technologies that use plants to express beneficial gene products. Given the antiviral nature of gene silencing in plants and the indications that PTGS is an ancient mechanism in eukaryotic organisms, understanding the phenomenon in plants could well lead to the development of anti-viral strategies in both plants and animals.