Plant glutamate receptor-like genes (GLRs) are homologous to the genes for mammalian ionotropic glutamate receptors (iGluRs), after which they were named, but in the 16 years since their existence was first revealed, progress in elucidating their biological role has been disappointingly slow. Recently, however, studies from a number of laboratories focusing on the model plant species Arabidopsis thaliana (L.) have thrown new light on the functional properties of some members of the GLR gene family. One important finding has been that plant GLR receptors have a much broader ligand specificity than their mammalian iGluR counterparts, with evidence that some individual GLR receptors can be gated by as many as seven amino acids. These results, together with the ubiquity of their expression throughout the plant, open up the possibility that GLR receptors could have a pervasive role in plants as non-specific amino acid sensors in diverse biological processes. Addressing what one of these roles could be, recent studies examining the wound response and disease susceptibility in GLR knockout mutants have provided evidence that some members of clade 3 of the GLR gene family encode important components of the plant's defence response. Ways in which this family of amino acid receptors might contribute to the plant's ability to respond to an attack from pests and pathogens are discussed.