Various gram-negative animal and plant pathogens use a novel, sec-independent protein secretion system as a basic virulence mechanism. It is becoming increasingly clear that these so-called type III secretion systems inject (translocate) proteins into the cytosol of eukaryotic cells, where the translocated proteins facilitate bacterial pathogenesis by specifically interfering with host cell signal transduction and other cellular processes. Accordingly, some type III secretion systems are activated by bacterial contact with host cell surfaces. Individual type III secretion systems direct the secretion and translocation of a variety of unrelated proteins, which account for species-specific pathogenesis phenotypes. In contrast to the secreted virulence factors, most of the 15 to 20 membrane-associated proteins which constitute the type III secretion apparatus are conserved among different pathogens. Most of the inner membrane components of the type III secretion apparatus show additional homologies to flagellar biosynthetic proteins, while a conserved outer membrane factor is similar to secretins from type II and other secretion pathways. Structurally conserved chaperones which specifically bind to individual secreted proteins play an important role in type III protein secretion, apparently by preventing premature interactions of the secreted factors with other proteins. The genes encoding type III secretion systems are clustered, and various pieces of evidence suggest that these systems have been acquired by horizontal genetic transfer during evolution. Expression of type III secretion systems is coordinately regulated in response to host environmental stimuli by networks of transcription factors. This review comprises a comparison of the structure, function, regulation, and impact on host cells of the type III secretion systems in the animal pathogens Yersinia spp., Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Shigella flexneri, Salmonella typhimurium, enteropathogenic Escherichia coli, and Chlamydia spp. and the plant pathogens Pseudomonas syringae, Erwinia spp., Ralstonia solanacearum, Xanthomonas campestris, and Rhizobium spp.