Cell recognition and mating in the smut fungus Ustilago maydis have been proposed to involve specific pheromones and pheromone receptors. The respective structural genes are located in the a mating type locus that exists in the alleles a1 and a2. We demonstrate that binding of pheromone to the receptor can induce a morphological switch from yeast-like to filamentous growth in certain strains. Using this as biological assay we were able to purify both the a1 and a2 pheromone. The structure of the secreted pheromones was determined to be 13 amino acids for a1 and nine amino acids for a2. Both pheromones are post-translationally modified by farnesylation and carboxyl methyl esterification of the C-terminal cysteine. An unmodified a1 peptide exhibits dramatically reduced activity. The pheromone alone is able to induce characteristic conjugation tubes in cells of opposite mating type and confers mating competence; even cells of the same mating type undergo fusion. We discuss the role of pheromones in initiating filamentous growth and pathogenic development.