The Arabidopsis thaliana genome has over 550 protease sequences representing all five catalytic types: serine, cysteine, aspartic acid, metallo and threonine (MEROPS peptidase database, http://merops.sanger.ac.uk/), which probably reflect a wide variety of as yet unidentified functions performed by plant proteases. Recent indications that the 26S proteasome, a T1 family-threonine protease, is a regulator of light and hormone responsive signal transduction highlight the potential of proteases to participate in many aspects of plant growth and development. Recent discoveries that proteases are required for stomatal distribution, embryo development and disease resistance point to wider roles for four additional multigene families that include some of the most frequently studied (yet poorly understood) plant proteases: the subtilisin-like, serine proteases (family S8), the papain-like, cysteine proteases (family C1A), the pepsin-like, aspartic proteases (family A1) and the plant matrixin, metalloproteases (family M10A). In this report, 54 subtilisin-like, 30 papain-like and 59 pepsin-like proteases from Arabidopsis, are compared with S8, C1A and A1 proteases known from other plant species at the functional, phylogenetic and gene structure levels. Examples of structural conservation between S8, C1A and A1 genes from rice, barley, tomato and soybean and those from Arabidopsis are noted, indicating that some common, essential plant protease roles were established before the divergence of monocots and eudicots. Numerous examples of tandem duplications of protease genes and evidence for a variety of restricted expression patterns suggest that a high degree of specialization exists among proteases within each family. We propose that comprehensive analysis of the functions of these genes in Arabidopsis will firmly establish serine, cysteine and aspartic proteases as regulators and effectors of a wide range of plant processes.