Much of our current knowledge on the mechanisms by which Ca(2+) signals are generated in photosynthetic eukaryotes comes from studies of a relatively small number of model species, particularly green plants and algae, revealing some common features and notable differences between 'plant' and 'animal' systems. Physiological studies from a broad range of algal cell types have revealed the occurrence of animal-like signalling properties, including fast action potentials and fast propagating cytosolic Ca(2+) waves. Genomic studies are beginning to reveal the widespread occurrence of conserved channel types likely to be involved in Ca(2+) signalling. However, certain widespread 'ancient' channel types appear to have been lost by certain groups, such as the embryophytes. More recent channel gene loss is also evident from comparisons of more closely related algal species. The underlying processes that have given rise to the current distributions of Ca(2+) channel types include widespread retention of ancient Ca(2+) channel genes, horizontal gene transfer (including symbiotic gene transfer and acquisition of bacterial genes), gene loss and gene expansion within taxa. The assessment of the roles of Ca(2+) channel genes in diverse physiological, developmental and life history processes represents a major challenge for future studies.