The past four years have seen an explosion in the number of detected RNA transcripts with no apparent protein-coding potential. This has led to speculation that non-protein-coding RNAs (ncRNAs) might be as important as proteins in the regulation of vital cellular functions. However, there has been significantly less progress in actually demonstrating the functions of these transcripts. In this article, we review the results of recent experiments that show that transcription of non-protein-coding RNA is far more widespread than was previously anticipated. Although some ncRNAs act as molecular switches that regulate gene expression, the function of many ncRNAs is unknown. New experimental and computational approaches are emerging that will help determine whether these newly identified transcription products are evidence of important new biochemical pathways or are merely 'junk' RNA generated by the cell as a by-product of its functional activities.