Benzylisoquinoline alkaloids (BIAs) consist of more than 2500 diverse structures largely restricted to the order Ranunculales and the eumagnoliids. However, BIAs also occur in the Rutaceae, Lauraceae, Cornaceae and Nelumbonaceae, and sporadically throughout the order Piperales. Several of these alkaloids function in the defense of plants against herbivores and pathogens - thus, the capacity for BIA biosynthesis is expected to play an important role in the reproductive fitness of certain plants. Biochemical and molecular phylogenetic approaches were used to investigate the evolution of BIA biosynthesis in basal angiosperms. The occurrence of (S)-norcoclaurine synthase (NCS; EC 188.8.131.52) activity in 90 diverse plant species was compared to the distribution of BIAs superimposed onto a molecular phylogeny. These results support the monophyletic origin of BIA biosynthesis prior to the emergence of the eudicots. Phylogenetic analyses of NCS, berberine bridge enzyme and several O-methyltransferases suggest a latent molecular fingerprint for BIA biosynthesis in angiosperms not known to accumulate such alkaloids. The limited occurrence of BIAs outside the Ranunculales and eumagnoliids suggests the requirement for a highly specialized, yet evolutionarily unstable cellular platform to accommodate or reactivate the pathway in divergent taxa. The molecular cloning and functional characterization of NCS from opium poppy (Papaver somniferum L.) is also reported. Pathogenesis-related (PR)10 and Bet v 1 major allergen proteins share homology with NCS, but recombinant polypeptides were devoid of NCS activity.