Histone deacetylases (HDACs) are homologous to prokaryotic enzymes that removed acetyl groups from non-histone proteins before the evolution of eukaryotic histones. Enzymes inherited from prokaryotes or from a common ancestor were adapted for histone deacetylation, while useful deacetylation of non-histone proteins was selectively retained. Histone deacetylation served to prevent transcriptions with pathological consequences, including the expression of viral DNA and the deletion or dysregulation of vital genes by random transposon insertions. Viruses are believed to have evolved from transposons, with transposons providing the earliest impetus of HDAC evolution. Because of the wide range of genes potentially affected by transposon insertions, the range of diseases that can be prevented by HDACs is vast and inclusive. Repressive chromatin modifications that may prevent transcription also include methylation of selective lysine residues of histones H3 and H4 and the methylation of selective DNA cytosines following specific histone lysine methylation. Methylation and acetylation of individual histone residues are mutually exclusive. While transposons were sources of disease to be prevented by HDAC evolution, they were also the source of numerous and valuable coding and regulatory sequences recruited by "molecular domestication." Those sequences contribute to evolved complex transcription regulation in which components with contradictory effects, such as HDACs and HATs, may be coordinated and complementary. Within complex transcription regulation, however, HDACs remain ineffective as defense against some critical infectious and noninfectious diseases because evolutionary compromises have rendered their activity transient. © Springer-Verlag 2011.