Semaphorins are a large family of secreted or cell-bound signals, known to guide axons in developing nervous tissue. They are expressed in a variety of adult and embryonic tissues and are thought to have a broader spectrum of functions. Recent evidence suggests that semaphorins and their receptors play a key role in the control of cellular interactions, most likely in cell-cell repulsion. A subset of semaphorins interacts with neuropilins - cell-surface molecules lacking a signalling-competent cytoplasmic domain. Another large family of transmembrane molecules, namely plexins, bind specifically to semaphorins. Thus plexins, alone, or in association with neuropilins, behave as fully functional semaphorin receptors. The intracellular responses elicited by plexins are unknown, but their large cytoplasmic moiety, containing the strikingly conserved sex-plexin (SP) domain, is likely to trigger novel signal-transduction pathways. Copyright (C) 2000 Elsevier Science Ltd.