Activation of local and systemic plant defences in response to pathogen attack involves dramatic cellular reprogramming. Over the past 10 years many novel genes, proteins and molecules have been discovered as a result of investigating plant-pathogen interactions. Most attempts to harness this knowledge to engineer improved disease resistance in crops have failed. Although gene efficacy in transgenic plants has often been good, commercial exploitation has not been possible because of the detrimental effects on plant growth, development and crop yield. Biotechnology approaches have now shifted emphasis towards marker-assisted breeding and the construction of vectors containing highly regulated transgenes that confer resistance in several distinct ways.