Extracellular zinc-containing metalloproteases are widely distributed in the bacterial world. The most extensively studied are those which are associated with pathogenic bacteria or bacteria which have industrial significance. They are found practically wherever they are sought in both gram-negative and gram-positive microorganisms, be they aerobic or anaerobic. This ubiquity in itself implies that these enzymes serve important functions for the organisms which produce them. Because of the importance of zinc to enzymatic activity, it is not surprising that there is a pervasive amino acid sequence homology in the primary structure of this family of enzymes regardless of their source. The evidence suggests that both convergent and divergent evolutionary forces are at work. Within the large family of bacterial zinc-containing metalloendopeptidases, smaller family units are observed, such as thermolysin-like, elastase-like, and Serratia protease-like metalloproteases from various bacterial species. While this review was in the process of construction, a new function for zinc-containing metalloproteases was discovered: the neurotoxins of Clostridium tetani and Clostridium botulinum type B have been shown to be zinc metalloproteases with specificity for synaptobrevin, an integral membrane protein of small synaptic vesicles which is involved in neurotransmission. Additional understanding of the mode of action of proteases which contribute to pathogenicity could lead to the development of inhibitors, such as chelators, surrogate substrates, or antibodies, which could prevent or interrupt the disease process. Further studies of this broad family of metalloproteases will provide important additional insights into the pathogenesis and structure-function relationships of enzymes and will lead to the development of products, including "designer proteins," which might be industrially and/or therapeutically useful.