The hypersensitive response (HR) of plants resistant to microbial pathogens involves a complex form of programmed cell death (PCD) that differs from developmental PCD in its consistent association with the induction of local and systemic defence responses. Hypersensitive cell death is commonly controlled by direct or indirect interactions between pathogen avirulence gene products and those of plant resistance genes and it can be the result of multiple signalling pathways. Ion fluxes and the generation of reactive oxygen species commonly precede cell death, but a direct involvement of the latter seems to vary with the plant-pathogen combination. Protein synthesis, an intact actin cytoskeleton and salicylic acid also seem necessary for cell death induction. Cytological studies suggest that the actual mode and sequence of dismantling the cell contents varies among plant-parasite systems although there may be a universal involvement of cysteine proteases. It seems likely that cell death within the HR acts more as a signal to the rest of the plant rather than as a direct defence mechanism.