For most large phages of both Gram-positive and Gram-negative bacteria, there appears to be a single pathway for achieving disruption of the host envelope, requiring at least two phage-encoded lysis functions (a holin and an endolysin). The holin is a small membrane protein which causes a non-specific lesion in the cytoplasmic membrane, which allows the endolysin to gain access to its substrate, the peptidoglycan. The scheduling of host lysis is effected by regulatory mechanisms which govern the synthesis and activity of the holin protein accumulating in the membrane. Accordingly, aspects of expression and function of holin genes are considered here, focusing mainly on the lambdoid S genes. This group of genes, of which lambda S is the prototype, are characterized by a dual-start motif consisting of two Met start codons separated by one or two codons, at least one of which specifies Arg or Lys. Two protein products are elaborated, differing only by two or three N-terminal residues but apparently possessing opposing functions: the shorter polypeptide is the active holin, or lysiseffector, whereas the longer polypeptide apparently acts as an inhibitor of holin function. Models will be considered which may account for the ability of the holin to form a 'hole' in the cytoplasmic membrane at a programmed time, as well as for the inhibitory properties of the longer product. Finally, we discuss recent results suggesting that the dual-start motif can be viewed as a level of regulation superimposed on a timing function intrinsic to the canonical holin structure.