The ability to sequence genomes and characterize their products has begun to reveal the central role for regulatory RNAs in biology, especially in complex organisms. It is now evident that the human genome contains not only protein-coding genes, but also tens of thousands of non–protein coding genes that express small and long ncRNAs (non-coding RNAs). Rapid progress in characterizing these ncRNAs has identified a diverse range of subclasses, which vary widely in size, sequence and mechanism-of-action, but share a common functional theme of regulating gene expression. ncRNAs play a crucial role in many cellular pathways, including the differentiation and development of cells and organs and, when mis-regulated, in a number of diseases. Increasing evidence suggests that these RNAs are a major area of evolutionary innovation and play an important role in determining phenotypic diversity in animals.