A classification for crystal protein genes of Bacillus thuringiensis is presented. Criteria used are the insecticidal spectra and the amino acid sequences of the encoded proteins. Fourteen genes are distinguished, encoding proteins active against either Lepidoptera (cryI), Lepidoptera and Diptera (cryII), Coleoptera (cryIII), or Diptera (cryIV). One gene, cytA, encodes a general cytolytic protein and shows no structural similarities with the other genes. Toxicity studies with single purified proteins demonstrated that every described crystal protein is characterized by a highly specific, and sometimes very restricted, insect host spectrum. Comparison of the deduced amino acid sequences reveals sequence elements which are conserved for Cry proteins. The expression of crystal protein genes is affected by a number of factors. Recently, two distinct sigma subunits regulating transcription during different stages of sporulation have been identified, as well as a protein regulating the expression of a crystal protein at a posttranslational level. Studies on the biochemical mechanisms of toxicity suggest that B. thuringiensis crystal proteins induce the formation of pores in membranes of susceptible cells. In vitro binding studies with radiolabeled toxins demonstrated a strong correlation between the specificity of B. thuringiensis toxins and the interaction with specific binding sites on the insect midgut epithelium. The expression of B. thuringiensis crystal proteins in plant-associated microorganisms and in transgenic plants has been reported. These approaches are potentially powerful strategies for the protection of agriculturally important crops against insect damage.