Higher plants used extensively in traditional medicines are increasingly being screened for their role in modulating the activity of environmental genotoxicants. The property of preventing carcinogenesis has been reported in many plant extracts. The observation of a close association between carcinogenesis and mutagenesis has extended the survey to include plant extracts and plant products able to modify the process of mutagenesis, which involves alteration in the genetic material. Natural plant products may, apart from inducing mutations, modify the action of other known mutagens on the living organisms by 1) activating the existing mutagens within the cell, 2) inhibiting the production of mutagens in the cell, 3) synergising the activity of existing mutagens, or 4) activating the promutagens within the cell into mutagens. This review deals with data obtained in the course of research on the modulatory effects of plant extracts on mutagenesis and clastogenesis, two genotoxic phenomena associated with carcinogenesis. In screening for antimutagenic effects, extracts of different plant parts have been used, ranging from leafy vegetables, fruits, and underground storage organs to whole plants. The extracts were prepared mainly in water or organic solvents. Several of these assays have indicated the involvement of certain factors that are intrinsic components of the extracts, ranging from specific compounds like ascorbic acid to vegetable fibres which could act as nonspecific redox agents, free radical scavengers, or ligands for binding metals or toxic principles. The possible ways in which inhibitors of mutagenesis can act include the inhibition of interaction between genes and biochemically reactive mutagens and the inhibition of metabolic activation of indirectly acting mutagens. The effects of toxicants can be observed at the level of chromosomes (clastogenesis) through alterations in chromosome structure (chromosomal aberrations) and number (aneuploidy, polyploidy). A wide range of short-term and long-term screening procedures is available. The most common ones use higher plants or rodents in vivo as test systems for monitoring chromosomal aberrations. Experiments with a number of crude vegetable and fruit extracts have demonstrated their anticlastogenic activities against known cytotoxic agents. The individual components of the extracts - e.g., sulfhydryl and flavonoid compounds, gallic acid, ellagic acid, mucic acid, citric acid, reducing sugars, tannin - are observed to have an additive interaction with the major constituents chlorophyll and ascorbic acid, when modulating the effects of the clastogens. Under certain conditions, plant products may induce mutagenic effects, due to the presence of multiple biological properties. Some inhibitors can stimulate simultaneously both enhancing and detoxifying mechanisms, e.g., inducers of coordinated enzyme activities. Many oxidants can, depending on the redox potential, either accept or donate electrons, rendering them protective or harmful. Plants also play an active role in the accumulation, metabolism, and environmental distribution of xenobiotics. The property of plants to activate promutagens that may enter the food chain is of great significance in view of the large number and types of chemicals to which the plants are exposed. A promutagen is a chemical that is not mutagenic itself but that can be biologically transformed by a plant system into a mutagen. Several methods for studying promutagens from plants were developed both in vivo and in vitro, including plant cell-free systems. Both mutagens and antimutagens can be extracted from the same plant extract depending on the nature of solvents used for extraction. Interaction between inhibitors may lead to synergistic effects. Such combined action may take place through the different inhibitors acting at different levels or being localised at different cellular areas. The greater protection afforded by crude plant extract as compared with an equivalent amount of the purified or synthetic ingredients, as observed with Phyllanthus emblica L. and Beta vulgaris L. var. benghalensis Hort., may be related to this phenomenon. Specific biological action of a drug is due to its specific binding to a functional molecular receptor. In complex plant extracts, the variable observed effects can be attributed to the many chemically reactive species that are formed during the processing and ingestion of the extract, which could act as non-specific redox agents, scavengers of free radicals, and ligands for binding to toxicants. The final effects are obviously the outcome of interactions between the components and their individual and collective interaction with the toxicant. The specificity and efficacy of such responses will be influenced also by the physiological factors influencing the plants and the process of administration of the extract. In utilizing pharmacologically active herbs, both beneficial and potential adverse effects must be taken into account. The actual dose and form of the plant also need to be worked out.