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RNA-binding proteins are key regulators of gene expression, yet only a small fraction have been functionally characterized. Here we report a systematic analysis of the RNA motifs recognized by RNA-binding proteins, encompassing 205 distinct genes from 24 diverse eukaryotes. The sequence specificities of RNA-binding proteins display deep evolutionary conservation, and the recognition preferences for a large fraction of metazoan RNA-binding proteins can thus be inferred from their RNA-binding domain sequence. The motifs that we identify in vitro correlate well with in vivo RNA-binding data. Moreover, we can associate them with distinct functional roles in diverse types of post-transcriptional regulation, enabling new insights into the functions of RNA-binding proteins both in normal physiology and in human disease. These data provide an unprecedented overview of RNA-binding proteins and their targets, and constitute an invaluable resource for determining post-transcriptional regulatory mechanisms in eukaryotes.