In most fungal ascomycetes, mating is controlled by a single locus (MAT). Fungi requiring a partner to mate are heterothallic (self-sterile); those not requiring a partner are homothallic (self-fertile). Structural analyses of MAT sequences from homothallic and heterothallic Cochliobolus species support the hypothesis that heterothallism is ancestral. Homothallic species carry both MAT genes in a single nucleus, usually closely linked or fused, in contrast to heterothallic species, which have alternate MAT genes in different nuclei. The structural organization of MAT from all heterothallic species examined is highly conserved; in contrast, the organization of MAT in each homothallic species is unique. The mechanism of conversion from heterothallism to homothallism is a recombination event between islands of identity in otherwise dissimilar MAT sequences. Expression of a fused MAT gene from a homothallic species confers self-fertility on a MAT-null strain of a heterothallic species, suggesting that MAT alone is sufficient to change reproductive life style.