Plasmodium falciparum is the causative agent of the most deadly form of human malaria. Chemotherapy traditionally has been the main line of defense against this parasite, and chloroquine, the drug of choice, has been one of the most successful drugs ever developed. Unfortunately, the evolution and spread of resistance to chloroquine and other quinoline-containing drugs means that these compounds are now virtually useless in many endemic areas. Future prospects for the use of quinoline compounds improved considerably when it was demonstrated that chloroquine resistance could be circumvented in vitro by a number of structurally and functionally unrelated compounds such as verapamil and desipramine. The phenomenon of resistance reversal by compounds such as verapamil is also a key feature of drug resistance in mammalian cells, and this has raised the possibility that the underlying mechanisms of drug resistance of the two cell types could be similar. This hypothesis has prompted a large number of studies into the genetics and biochemistry of resistance to quinoline-containing drugs in P. falciparum. Both the genetic and the biochemical studies have raised issues of controversy and stimulated much debate. These issues are discussed in this review, in the context of a comparison with the genetics and biochemistry of multidrug resistance in mammalian cells.