BACKGROUND : The malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum expresses four related papain-family cysteine proteases known as falcipains. These proteases play critical roles in the parasite life cycle, and as such are potential targets for new modes of antimalarial chemotherapy, as discussed in this review. METHODS : This review summarizes available knowledge describing falcipain cysteine proteases of malaria parasites. CONCLUSIONS : Based on available data the falcipains can be broken into two sub-families, the falcipain-1 and the falcipain-2/3 sub-families. Falcipain-1 has been difficult to study; it appears to play its most important roles in nonerythrocytic parasites, but not the erythrocytic stage responsible for human disease. Falcipain-2 and falcipain-3 have similar biochemical features, and are expressed sequentially during the erythrocytic cycle. Inhibition of either of these enzymes blocks hemoglobin hydrolysis and completion of the parasite developmental cycle. Knockout of falcipain-2 blocks hemoglobin hydrolysis, but parasites recover, presumably due to subsequent expression of falcipain-3. Knockout of falcipain-3 has not been possible, suggesting that the protease is essential for erythrocytic parasites. Determination of structures of falcipains and extensive chemistry efforts have facilitated identification of numerous small molecule falcipain inhibitors as potential new antimalarial agents. Other malaria parasites express close homologs of falcipain-1 and falcipain-2/3 proteases, suggesting that agents that target the falcipains will also be active against other human malaria parasites. CONCLUSIONS : Falcipain-2 and falcipain-3 play vital roles during the erythrocytic stage of infection with P. falciparum and thus are promising targets for new agents to treat malaria.