Summary The functions of phenylpropanoid compounds in plant defence range from preformed or inducible physical and chemical barriers against infection to signal molecules involved in local and systemic signalling for defence gene induction. Defensive functions are not restricted to a particular class of phenylpropanoid compound, but are found in the simple hydroxycinnamic acids and monolignols through to the more complex flavonoids, isoflavonoids, and stilbenes. The enzymatic steps involved in the biosynthesis of the major classes of phenylpropanoid compounds are now well established, and many of the corresponding genes have been cloned. Less is understood about the regulatory genes that orchestrate rapid, coordinated induction of phenylpropanoid defences in response to microbial attack. Many of the biosynthetic pathway enzymes are encoded by gene families, but the specific functions of individual family members remain to be determined. The availability of the complete genome sequence of Arabidopsis thaliana, and the extensive expressed sequence tag (EST) resources in other species, such as rice, soybean, barrel medic, and tomato, allow, for the first time, a full appreciation of the comparative genetic complexity of the phenylpropanoid pathway across species. In addition, gene expression array analysis and metabolic profiling approaches make possible comparative parallel analyses of global changes at the genome and metabolome levels, facilitating an understanding of the relationships between changes in specific transcripts and subsequent alterations in metabolism in response to infection.