Cells respond to signals of both environmental and biological origin. Responses are often receptor mediated and result in the synthesis of so-called second messengers that then provide a link between extracellular signals and downstream events, including changes in gene expression. Cyclic nucleotides (cAMP and cGMP) are among the most widely studied of this class of molecule. Research on their function and mode of action has been a paradigm for signal transduction systems and has shaped our understanding of this important area of biology. Cyclic nucleotides have diverse regulatory roles in both unicellular and multicellular organisms, highlighting the utility and success of this system of molecular communication. This review will examine the structural diversity of microbial adenylyl and guanylyl cyclases, the enzymes that synthesize cAMP and cGMP respectively. We will address the relationship of structure to biological function and speculate on the complex origin of these crucial regulatory molecules. A review is timely because the explosion of data from the various genome projects is providing new and exciting insights into protein function and evolution.