Cluster roots are an adaptation for nutrient acquisition from nutrient-poor soils. They develop on root systems of a range of species belonging to a number of different families (e.g., Proteaceae, Casuarinaceae, Fabaceae and Myricaceae) and are also found on root systems of some crop species (e.g., Lupinus albus, Macadamia integrifolia and Cucurbita pepo). Their morphology is variable but typically, large numbers of determinate branch roots develop over very short distances of main root axes. Root clusters are ephemeral, and continually replaced by extension of the main root axes. Carboxylates are released from cluster roots at very fast rates for only a few days during a brief developmental window termed an 'exudative burst'. Most of the studies of cluster-root metabolism have been carried out using the crop plant L. albus, but results on native plants have provided important additional information on carbon metabolism and exudate composition. Cluster-root forming species are generally non-mycorrhizal, and rely upon their specialised roots for the acquisition of phosphorus and other scarcely available nutrients. Phosphorus is a key plant nutrient for altering cluster-root formation, but their formation is also influenced by N and Fe. The initiation and growth of cluster roots is enhanced when plants are grown at a very low phosphate supply (viz. <= 1 mu M P), and cluster-root suppression occurs at relatively higher P supplies. An important feature of some Proteaceae is storage of phosphorus in stem tissues which is associated with the seasonality of cluster-root development and P uptake (winter) and shoot growth (summer), and also maintains low leaf [P]. Some species of Proteaceae develop symptoms of P toxicity at relatively low external P supply. Our findings with Hakea prostrata (Proteaceae) indicate that P-toxicity symptoms result after the capacity of tissues to store P is exceeded. P accumulation in H. prostrata is due to its strongly decreased capacity to down-regulate P uptake when the external P supply is supra-optimal. The present review investigates cluster-root functioning in (1) L. albus (white lupin), the model crop plant for cluster-root studies, and (2) native Proteaceae that have evolved in phosphate-impoverished environments.