Excessive hydrogen peroxide is harmful for almost all cell components, so its rapid and efficient removal is of essential importance for aerobically living organisms. Conversely, hydrogen peroxide acts as a second messenger in signal-transduction pathways. H(2)O(2) is degraded by peroxidases and catalases, the latter being able both to reduce H(2)O(2) to water and to oxidize it to molecular oxygen. Nature has evolved three protein families that are able to catalyze this dismutation at reasonable rates. Two of the protein families are heme enzymes: typical catalases and catalase-peroxidases. Typical catalases comprise the most abundant group found in Eubacteria, Archaeabacteria, Protista, Fungi, Plantae, and Animalia, whereas catalase-peroxidases are not found in plants and animals and exhibit both catalatic and peroxidatic activities. The third group is a minor bacterial protein family with a dimanganese active site called manganese catalases. Although catalyzing the same reaction (2 H(2)O(2)--> 2 H(2)O+ O(2)), the three groups differ significantly in their overall and active-site architecture and the mechanism of reaction. Here, we present an overview of the distribution, phylogeny, structure, and function of these enzymes. Additionally, we report about their physiologic role, response to oxidative stress, and about diseases related to catalase deficiency in humans.