RNA interference (RNAi) as a protecting mechanism against invasion by foreign genes was first described in C. elegans and has subsequently been demonstrated in diverse eukaryotes such as insects, plants, fungi and vertebrates. RNAi is the mechanism of sequence-specific, post-transcriptional gene silencing initiated by double-stranded RNAs (dsRNA) homologous to the gene being suppressed. dsRNAs are processed by Dicer, a cellular ribonuclease III, to generate duplexes of about 21 nt with 3'-overhangs (small interfering RNA, siRNA) which mediate sequence-specific mRNA degradation. In mammalian cells siRNA molecules are capable of specifically silencing gene expression without induction of the unspecific interferon response pathway. Thus, siRNAs have become a new and powerful alternative to other genetic tools such as antisense oligonucleotides and ribozymes to analyze loss-of-function phenotypes. Application of siRNA duplexes to interfere with the expression of a specific gene requires knowledge of target accessibility, highly effective delivery of siRNAs into target cells and for some applications long-term siRNA expression. Effective strategies to deliver siRNAs to target cells in cell culture include transduction by physical or chemical transfection. An alternative strategy uses the endogenous expression of siRNAs by various Pol III promoter expression cassettes that allow transcription of functional siRNAs or their precursors. This review summarizes some genetic and biochemical aspects of RNAi, the delivery and application of siRNAs to target cells, the kinetics of RNAi and the utility of siRNAs as analytical and potential therapeutic tools.