Chalcone (CHS) and stilbene (STS) synthases are related plant-specific polyketide synthases that are key enzymes in the biosynthesis of flavonoids and of stilbene phytoalexins, respectively. A phylogenetic tree constructed from 34 CHS and four STS sequences revealed that the STS formed no separate cluster but grouped with CHS from the same or related plants. This suggested that STS evolved from CHS several times independently. We attempted to stimulate this by site-directed mutagenesis of an interfamily CHS/STS hybrid, which contained 107 amino acids of a CHS from Sinapis alba (N-terminal) and 287 amino acids of a STS from Arachis hypogaea. The hybrid had no enzyme activity. Three amino acid exchanges in the CHS part (Gln-100 to Glu, Val-103 to Met, Val-105 to Arg) were sufficient to obtain low STS activity, and one additional exchange (Gly-23 to Thr) resulted in 20-25% of the parent STS activity. A kinetic analysis indicated (1) that the hybrids had the same Km for the substrate 4-coumaroyl-CoA but a lower Vmax than the parent STS, and (2) that they had a different substrate preference than the parent STS and CHS. Most of the other mutations and their combinations led to enzymatically inactive protein aggregates, suggesting that the subunit folding and/or the dimerization was disturbed. We propose that STS evolved from CHS by a limited number of amino acid exchanges, and that the advantage gained by this enzyme function favored the selection of plants with improved STS activity.