We surveyed ribonuclease activity in the styles of Nicotiana spp. and found little or no activity in self-compatible species and in a self-compatible accession of a self-incompatible species. All self-incompatible species had high levels of ribonuclease activity in their style. Interestingly, one self-compatible species, N. sylvestris, had a level of stylar ribonuclease activity comparable to that of some self-incompatible Nicotiana species. A ribonuclease with biochemical properties similar to those of the self-incompatibility (S-)RNases of N. alata was purified from N. sylvestris styles. The N-terminal sequence of this protein was used to confirm the identity of a cDNA corresponding to the stylar RNase. The amino acid sequence deduced from the cDNA was related to those of the S-RNases and included the five conserved regions characteristic of these proteins. It appears that the N. sylvestris RNase may have evolved from the S-RNases and is an example of a 'relic S-RNase'. A number of features distinguish the N. sylvestris RNase from the S-RNases, and the role these may have played in the presumed loss of the self-incompatibility response during the evolution of this species are discussed.