The high mobility group I, Y, and I-C proteins are low-molecular-weight, nonhistone chromosomal proteins that play a general role modulating gene expression during development and the immune response. Consistent with their role in early development, all three proteins are expressed at high levels during embryogenesis, and their expression is markedly diminished in differentiated cells. Exceptions to the general repression of these genes in adult tissues involve (1) A burst of synthesis of the HMG I protein during the immune response (during lymphocyte activation and preceding cytokine/adhesion molecule gene expression), (2) A constitutive expression of the HMG I and Y proteins in photoreceptor cells, and (3) Derepression of HMG I, Y, and often I-C expression in neoplastic cells. Work from several laboratories has now uncovered how these proteins participate in gene activation: (1) By altering the chromatin structure around an inducible gene-and thus influencing accessibility of the locus to regulatory proteins-(2) By facilitating the loading of transcription factors onto the promoters, and (3) By bridging adjacent transcription factors on a promoter via protein/protein interactions. Despite the similar structures and biochemical properties of the three proteins, the work has also provided clues to a division of labor between these proteins. HMG I and Y have demonstrable roles in enhanceosome formation, whereas HMG I-C has a specific role in adipogenesis. C-terminal truncations of HMG I-C and wild-type HMG Y appear to function in a manner analogous to oncogenes, as assessed by cellular transforation assays and transgenic mice. Future work should clearly define the similarities and differences in the biological roles of the three proteins, and should evolve to include attempts at pharmaceutical intervention in disease, based upon structural information concerning HMG I interactions with DNA and with regulatory proteins.