It has recently emerged that malarial, toxoplasmodial and related parasites contain a vestigial plastid (the organelle in which photosynthesis occurs in plants and algae). The function of the plastid in these obligate intracellular parasites has not been established. It seems likely that modern apicomplexans derive from photosynthetic predecessors, which perhaps formed associations with protists and invertebrates and abandoned autotrophy in favour of parasitism. Recognition of a third genetic compartment in these parasites proffers alternative strategies for combating a host of important human and animal diseases. It also poses some fascinating questions about the evolutionary biology of this important group of pathogens.