The assembly of beta-barrel proteins into membranes is a fundamental process that is essential in Gram-negative bacteria, mitochondria and plastids. Our understanding of the mechanism of beta-barrel assembly is progressing from studies carried out in Escherichia coli and Neisseria meningitidis. Comparative sequence analysis suggests that while many components mediating beta-barrel protein assembly are conserved in all groups of bacteria with outer membranes, some components are notably absent. The Alphaproteobacteria in particular seem prone to gene loss and show the presence or absence of specific components mediating the assembly of beta-barrels: some components of the pathway appear to be missing from whole groups of bacteria (e.g. Skp, YfgL and NlpB), other proteins are conserved but are missing characteristic domains (e.g. SurA). This comparative analysis is also revealing important structural signatures that are vague unless multiple members from a protein family are considered as a group (e.g. tetratricopeptide repeat (TPR) motifs in YfiO, beta-propeller signatures in YfgL). Given that the process of the beta-barrel assembly is conserved, analysis of outer membrane biogenesis in Alphaproteobacteria, the bacterial group that gave rise to mitochondria, also promises insight into the assembly of beta-barrel proteins in eukaryotes.