BACKGROUND: Malaria, caused by the parasitic protist Plasmodium falciparum, represents a major public health problem in the developing world. The P. falciparum genome has been sequenced, which provides new opportunities for the identification of novel drug targets. We report an exhaustive analysis of the P. falciparum genomic database (PlasmoDB) aimed at identifying and classifying all protein phosphatases (PP) in this organism. RESULTS: Using a variety of bioinformatics tools, we identified 27 malarial putative PP sequences within the four major established PP families, plus 7 sequences that we predict to dephosphorylate "non-protein" substrates. We constructed phylogenetic trees to position these sequences relative to PPs from other organisms representing all major eukaryotic phyla except Cercozoans (for which no full genome sequence is available). Predominant observations were: (i) P. falciparum possessed the smallest phosphatome of any of the organisms investigated in this study; (ii) no malarial PP clustered with the tyrosine-specific subfamily of the PTP group (iii) a cluster of 7 closely related members of the PPM/PP2C family is present, and (iv) some P. falciparum protein phosphatases are present in clades lacking any human homologue. CONCLUSION: The considerable phylogenetic distance between Apicomplexa and other Eukaryotes is reflected by profound divergences between the phosphatome of malaria parasites and those of representative organisms from all major eukaryotic phyla, which might be exploited in the context of efforts for the discovery of novel targets for antimalarial chemotherapy.