Several choices of amino acid substitution matrices are currently available for searching and alignment applications. These choices were evaluated using the BLAST searching program, which is extremely sensitive to differences among matrices, and the Prosite catalog, which lists members of hundreds of protein families. Matrices derived directly from either sequence-based or structure-based alignments of distantly related proteins performed much better overall than extrapolated matrices based on the Dayhoff evolutionary model. Similar results were obtained with the FASTA searching program. Improved performance appears to be general rather than family-specific, reflecting improved accuracy in scoring alignments. An implementation of a multiple matrix strategy was also tested. While no combination of three matrices performed as well as the single best matrix, BLOSUM 62, good results were obtained using a combination of sequence-based and structure-based matrices. This hybrid set of matrices is likely to be useful in certain situations. Our results illustrate the importance of matrix selection and the value of a comprehensive approach to evaluation of protein comparison tools.