A vast array of triterpenes are found in living organisms in addition to lanosterol and cycloartenol, which are involved in sterol biosynthesis in non-photosynthetic and photosynthetic eukaryotes respectively. The chemical structure of these triterpenes is determined by a single step catalysed by 2,3-oxidosqualene-triterpene cyclases. The present study describes cloning and functional expression in yeast of several OS-triterpene cyclases. Three Arabidopsis thaliana cDNAs encoding proteins (ATLUP1, ATLUP2, ATPEN1) 57%, 58% and 49% identical to cycloartenol synthase from the same plant were isolated. Expression of these cDNAs in yeast showed that the recombinant proteins catalyse the synthesis of various pentacyclic triterpenes. Whereas ATLUP1 is essentially involved in the synthesis of lupeol, ATLUP2 catalyses the production of lupeol, beta- and alpha-amyrin (in a 15:55:30 ratio). ATLUP2 is therefore a typical multifunctional enzyme. Under the same conditions, ATPEN1 did not lead to any product. Systematic sequencing of the Arabidopsis genome has led to genomic sequences encoding proteins identical to the above triterpene synthases. ATLUPI and ATLUP2 are representative of a small subfamily (A) of at least five genes, whereas ATPEN1 is representative of a subfamily (B) of at least seven genes. The number of introns is characteristic of each subfamily. Whereas genes of family A possess 17 exons and 16 introns, genes of the subfamily B contain 14 exons and 13 introns. The size of each exon is remarkably conserved within each subfamily whereas that of each intron appears to be highly variable. Organization of the genes, sequences and functions of the deduced proteins are discussed in evolutionary terms.