We review the involvement of two groups of genes, oncogenes and onco-suppressor genes, in malignant transformation. Approximately 40 oncogenes have been described mainly through studies on retroviruses and by in vitro functional analyses such as transfection of transforming genes into 'normal' cells. Because they are more difficult to identify, only a handful of onco-suppressor genes have been described so far, but potentially they could number as many as oncogenes. Where these genes have been isolated and sequenced, they have been shown to be highly conserved among species, suggesting that these genes play an essential role in the normal cell. Although some of properties of oncogenes have been identified, we do not know in detail the role these genes play in normal cells or how genetic damage contributes to malignancy. The effect of oncogene expression on a cell depends both on the cell type and on the oncogene, and in some circumstances oncogenes act as onco-suppressor genes and vice versa. The elucidation of the mechanism of action of oncogenes and onco-suppressor genes will not only increase our understanding of these important genes but might also provide the framework for a biological approach to the treatment of cancer.