Melanins are enigmatic pigments that are produced by a wide variety of microorganisms including several species of pathogenic bacteria, fungi and helminths. The study of melanin is difficult because these pigments defy complete biochemical and structural analysis. Nevertheless, the availability of new reagents in the form of monoclonal antibodies and melanin-binding peptides, combined with the application of various physical techniques, has provided insights into the process of melanization. Melanization is important in microbial pathogenesis because it has been associated with virulence in many microorganisms. Melanin appears to contribute to virulence by reducing the susceptibility of melanized microbes to host defence mechanisms. However, the interaction of melanized microbes and the host is complex and includes immune responses to melanin-related antigens. Production of melanin has also been linked to protection against environmental insults. Interference with melanization is a potential strategy for antimicrobial drug and pesticide development. The process of melanization poses fascinating problems in cell biology and provides a type of pathogenic strategy that is common to highly diverse pathogens.