Models of the bacterial ribosome based on recent structural analyses are beginning to provide new insights into the protein synthetic machinery. Central to evolving models are the high-resolution structures of individual ribosomal proteins, which represent detailed probes of their local RNA and protein environments. Ribosomal proteins are extremely ancient molecules; the structures therefore also provide a unique window into early protein evolution. Many of the proteins contain domains that are present in more recently evolved families of RNA- and DNA-binding proteins. Such structural homology can be used to predict mechanisms by which proteins interact with RNA in the ribosome.