Annexins are traditionally thought of as calcium-dependent phospholipid-binding proteins, but recent work suggests a more complex set of functions. More than a thousand proteins of the annexin superfamily have been identified in major eukaryotic phyla, but annexins are absent from yeasts and prokaryotes. The unique annexin core domain is made up of four similar repeats approximately 70 amino acids long, each of which usually contains a characteristic 'type 2' motif for binding calcium ions. Animal and fungal annexins also have non-homologous amino-terminal domains of varying length and sequence, which are responsible for the distinct localizations and specialized functions of the proteins through post-translational modification and binding to other proteins. Annexins interact with various cell-membrane components that are involved in the structural organization of the cell, intracellular signaling by enzyme modulation and ion fluxes, growth control, and they can act as atypical calcium channels. Analysis of site-specific conservation in the core domain suggests a role for certain buried residues in the calcium-channel activity of vertebrate annexins and in the structural stability of their core domains. Evolutionarily significant differences between subfamilies are preferentially localized to accessible sites on the protein surface that determine membrane binding and interactions with cytosolic proteins.