Five genes with homology to the floral homeotic genes deficiens of Antirrhinum and agamous of Arabidopsis were isolated from tomato. Each of the five genes is unique in the genome and could be localized to a different chromosome by RFLP mapping. Four of the tomato genes (hereafter TM) are flower-specific with distinguishable temporal expression. TM4 and TM8 are 'early', while TM5 and TM6 are 'late' genes. TM4 is homologous to squamous and TM6 is similar to deficiens, which are, respectively, 'early' and 'late' bona fide homeotic genes in Antirrhinum. The proteins encoded by the five tomato genes, like several known homeotic genes from other plants, contain within their N-terminus a highly conserved DNA-binding domain, the MADS box. All known plant MADS box genes also share, however, other properties. They all contain a central, moderately conserved, and rather basic domain, and a highly divergent or even missing C-terminal domain. Furthermore, molecular modelling predicts the presence of a conserved amphipatic alpha helix, at a constant distance from the MADS box in each of these proteins. The common properties of eight MADS box proteins from three plant families indicate that all their domains were coded for by the same ancestor gene. The sequence homology between pairs of MADS genes from different species indicates that the MADS ancestor gene multiplied and diverged in an ancestor plant common to several dicotyledon families.