Evidence now being obtained through nucleotide (nt) sequence analysis supports the concept that secondary metabolism has arisen by modification of existing primary metabolic reactions. Although amino acid sequence identity deduced from nt sequences of genes encoding proteins from related primary and secondary metabolic pathways is sufficient to indicate a common ancestry, the match is often better when genes in different rather than in the same species are compared. The information so far available suggests that gene transfer between organisms has been an important factor in the evolution of secondary metabolism. Many secondary pathways may be of relatively ancient origin and they may have arisen only infrequently. Much subsequent elaboration of the pathways has probably taken place after their acquisition by other species and so has been influenced by a variety of selective conditions. The characteristic diversity of secondary metabolites and their functions can be accounted for by the random manner in which the pathways initially evolved and have subsequently been exploited.