Mycotoxins are secondary metabolites produced by many important phytopathogenic and food spoilage fungi including Aspergillus, Fursarium, and Penicillium species. The toxicity of four of the most agriculturally important mycotoxins (the trichothecenes, and the polyketide-derived mycotoxins; aflatoxins, fumonisins and sterigmatocystin) are discussed and their chemical structure described. The steps involved in the biosynthesis of aflatoxin and sterigmatocystin and the experimental techniques used in the cloning and molecular characterisation of the genes involved in the pathway are described in detail. The biosynthetic genes involved in the fumonisin and trichothecene biosynthetic pathways are also outlined. The potential benefits gained from an increased knowledge of the molecular organisation of these pathways together with the mechanisms involved in their regulation are also discussed. (C) 1999 Federation of European Microbiological Societies. Published by Elsevier Science B.V. All rights reserved.