Histones wrap DNA to form nucleosome particles that compact eukaryotic genomes. Variant histones have evolved crucial roles in chromosome segregation, transcriptional regulation, DNA repair, sperm packaging and other processes. 'Universal' histone variants emerged early in eukaryotic evolution and were later displaced for bulk packaging roles by the canonical histones (H2A, H2B, H3 and H4), the synthesis of which is coupled to DNA replication. Further specializations of histone variants have evolved in some lineages to perform additional tasks. Differences among histone variants in their stability, DNA wrapping, specialized domains that regulate access to DNA, and post-translational modifications, underlie the diverse functions that histones have acquired in evolution.