The role of oxygen in regulating patterns of gene expression in mammalian development, physiology, and pathology has received increasing attention, especially after the discovery of the hypoxia-inducible factor (HIF), a transcription factor that has been likened to a "master switch" in the transcriptional response of mammalian cells and tissues to low oxygen. At present, considerably less is known about the molecular responses of nonmammalian vertebrates and invertebrates to hypoxic exposure. Because many animals live in aquatic habitats that are variable in oxygen tension, it is relevant to study oxygen-dependent gene expression in these animals. The purpose of this review is to discuss hypoxia-induced gene expression in fishes from an evolutionary and ecological context. Recent studies have described homologs of HIF in fish and have begun to evaluate their function. A number of physiological processes are known to be altered by hypoxic exposure of fish, although the evidence linking them to HIF is less well developed. The diversity of fish presents many opportunities to evaluate if inter- and intraspecific variation in HIF structure and function correlate with hypoxia tolerance. Furthermore, as an aquatic group, fish offer the opportunity to examine the interactions between hypoxia and other stressors, including pollutants, common in aquatic environments. It is possible, if not likely, that results obtained by studying the molecular responses of fish to hypoxia will find parallels in the oxygen-dependent responses of mammals, including humans. Moreover, novel responses to hypoxia could be discovered through studies of this diverse and species-rich group.