Self-incompatibility (SI) is widely distributed in flowering plants. In this review, early work on the biology, genetics and distribution of SI is summarized. Approaches to understanding the molecular genetics of SI have been made in two systems-Solanaceous species, for example Nicotiana alata, which have gametophytic systems of SI, and Brassica spp, which have sporophytic systems of SI. The information in both systems is derived from cDNAs that encode pistil glycoproteins (S-glycoproteins) that segregate with S-genotype. Comparison of the sequence data indicates that the gametophytic and sporophytic systems of SI probably arose independently during the evolution of angiosperms. The S-glycoproteins of a solanaceous plant Nicotiana alata, are ribonucleases (RNases). Whether the RNase activity is directly involved in the characteristic arrest of pollen tube growth during self-(incompatible) pollination, is not known. An alternative possibility is that the RNase was 'recruited' during evolution for a function in SI, without involvement of its catalytic function. The nature of the S-gene in pollen is not yet known for either the gametophytic or sporophytic SI systems. This is a key piece of information that will be required to progress our understanding of how the growth of a pollen tube bearing a particular S-allele is arrested within the style bearing an identical S-allele, but is not arrested within the style bearing other S-alleles.