Influenza A and B viruses carry two surface glycoproteins, the haemagglutinin (HA) and the neuraminidase (NA). Both proteins have been found to recognise the same host cell molecule, sialic acid. HA binds to sialic acid-containing receptors on target cells to initiate virus infection, whereas NA cleaves sialic acids from cellular receptors and extracellular inhibitors to facilitate progeny virus release and to promote the spread of the infection to neighbouring cells. Numerous studies performed recently have revealed that an optimal interplay between these receptor-binding and receptor-destroying activities of the surface glycoproteins is required for efficient virus replication. An existing balance between the antagonistic HA and NA functions of individual viruses can be disturbed by various events, such as reassortment, virus transmission to a new host, or therapeutic inhibition of neuraminidase. The resulting decrease in the viral replicative fitness is usually overcome by restoration of the functional balance due to compensatory mutations in HA, NA or both proteins. Copyright © 2002 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.