In the past few years a novel enzyme alpha-1,4-glucan lyase (EC 4.2. 2.13), which releases 1,5-anhydrofructose from starch and glycogen, has been cloned and characterized from red algae and fungi. Accumulated evidence indicates that the lytic degradation of starch and glycogen also occurs in other organisms. The present review focuses on the biochemical and molecular aspects of eight known alpha-1,4-glucan lyases and their genes from red algae and fungi. While the amino acid sequence identity is 75-80% among the alpha-1, 4-glucan lyases from each of the taxonomic groups, the identity between the algal and fungal alpha-1,4-glucan lyases is only 25-28%. Notably database searches disclosed that the alpha-1,4-glucan lyases have a clear identity of 23-28% with alpha-glucosidases of glycoside hydrolase family 31, thus for the first time linking enzymes from the class of hydrolases with that of lyases. The alignment of lyases and alpha-glucosidases revealed seven well-conserved regions, three of which have been reported to be involved in catalysis and substrate binding in alpha-glucosidases. The shared substrate and inhibitor specificity and sequence similarity of alpha-1,4-glucan lyases with alpha-glucosidases suggest that related structural elements are involved in the two different catalytic mechanisms.