Contents Summary 929 I. conservation and diversity of N-end rule pathways 929 II. Defensive functions of the N-end rule pathway in plants 930 III. Proteases and degradation by the N-end rule pathway 930 IV. New proteomics approaches for the identification of N-end rule substrates 932 V. Concluding remarks 932 Acknowledgements 934 References 934 SUMMARY: The N-end rule relates the stability of a protein to the identity of its N-terminal residue and some of its modifications. Since its discovery in the 1980s, the repertoire of N-terminal degradation signals has expanded, leading to a diversity of N-end rule pathways. Although some of these newly discovered N-end rule pathways remain largely unexplored in plants, recent discoveries have highlighted roles of N-end rule-mediated protein degradation in plant defense against pathogens and in cell proliferation during organ growth. Despite this progress, a bottleneck remains the proteome-wide identification of N-end rule substrates due to the prerequisite for endoproteolytic cleavage and technical limitations. Here, we discuss the recent diversification of N-end rule pathways and their newly discovered functions in plant defenses, stressing the role of proteases. We expect that novel proteomics techniques (N-terminomics) will be essential for substrate identification. We review these methods, their limitations and future developments. © 2017 The Authors. New Phytologist © 2017 New Phytologist Trust.