Ribosome display is a cell-free system for the in vitro selection of proteins and peptides from large libraries. It uses the principle of coupling individual nascent proteins (phenotypes) to their corresponding mRNA (genotypes), through the formation of stable protein-ribosome-mRNA (PRM) complexes. This permits the simultaneous isolation of a functional nascent protein, through affinity for a ligand, together with the encoding mRNA, which is then converted and amplified as DNA for further manipulation, including repeated cycles or protein expression. Ribosome display has a number of advantages over cell-based systems such as phage display; in particular, it can display very large libraries without the restriction of bacterial transformation. It is also suitable for generating toxic, proteolytically sensitive and unstable proteins, and allows the incorporation of modified amino acids at defined positions. In combination with polymerase chain reaction (PCR)-based methods, mutations can be introduced efficiently into the selected DNA pool in subsequent cycles, leading to continuous DNA diversification and protein selection (in vitro protein evolution). Both prokaryotic and eukaryotic ribosome display systems have been developed and each has its own distinctive features. In this paper, ribosome display systems and their application in selection and evolution of proteins are reviewed.