To investigate the extent to which in vivo mutation spectra might reflect the intrinsic specificities of active mutators, genetic and biochemical assays were used to analyse the DNA target specificities of cytidine deaminases of the APOBEC family. The results reveal the critical importance of nucleotides immediately 5' of the targeted C for the specificity of all three enzymes studied (AID, APOBEC1 and APOBEC3G). At position -1, APOBEC1 showed a marked preference for dT, AID for dA/dG and APOBEC3G a strong preference for dC. Furthermore, AID and APOBEC3G showed distinct dependence on the nucleotide at position -2 with dA/dT being favoured by AID and dC by APOBEC3G. Most if not all activity of the recombinant deaminases on free dC could be attributed to low-level contamination by host enzymes. The target preference of APOBEC3G supports it being a major but possibly not sole contributor to HIV hypermutation without making it a dominant contribution to general HIV sequence variation. The specificity of AID as deduced from the genetic assay (which relies on inactivation of sacB of Bacillus subtilis) agrees well with that deduced by Pham et al. using an in vitro assay although we postulate that major intrinsic mutational hotspots in immunoglobulin V genes in vivo might reflect favoured sites of AID action being generated by proximal DNA targets located on opposite DNA strands. The target specificity of AID also accords with the spectrum of mutations observed in B lymphoma-associated oncogenes. The possibility of deaminase involvement in non-lymphoid human tumours is hinted at by tissue-specific differences in the spectra of dC transitions in tumour-suppressor genes. Thus, the patterns of hypermutation in antibodies and retroviruses owe much to the intrinsic sequence preferences of the AID/APOBEC family of DNA deaminases: analogous biases might also contribute to the spectra of cancer-associated mutation.