Complete genomic sequence is known for two multicellular eukaryotes, the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans and the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster, and it will soon be known for humans. However, biological function has been assigned to only a small proportion of the predicted genes in any animal. Here we have used RNA-mediated interference (RNAi) to target nearly 90% of predicted genes on C. elegans chromosome I by feeding worms with bacteria that express double-stranded RNA. We have assigned function to 13.9% of the genes analysed, increasing the number of sequenced genes with known phenotypes on chromosome I from 70 to 378. Although most genes with sterile or embryonic lethal RNAi phenotypes are involved in basal cell metabolism, many genes giving post-embryonic phenotypes have conserved sequences but unknown function. In addition, conserved genes are significantly more likely to have an RNAi phenotype than are genes with no conservation. We have constructed a reusable library of bacterial clones that will permit unlimited RNAi screens in the future; this should help develop a more complete view of the relationships between the genome, gene function and the environment.