The Y-box proteins are the most evolutionarily conserved nucleic acid binding proteins yet defined in bacteria, plants and animals. The central nucleic acid binding domain of the vertebrate proteins is 43% identical to a 70-amino-acid-long protein (CS7.4) from E. coli. The structure of this domain consists of an antiparallel fivestranded β-barrel that recognizes both DNA and RNA. The diverse biological roles of these Y-box proteins range from the control of the E. coli cold-shock stress response to the translational masking of messenger RNA in vertebrate gametes. This review discusses the organization of the prokaryotic and eukaryotic Y-box proteins, how they interact with nucleic acids, and their biological roles, both proven and potential.