The functional and evolutionary significance of highly repetitive, simple sequence (satellite) DNA is analysed by examining available information on the patterns of variation of heterochromatin and cloned satellites among newts (family Salamandridae), and particularly species of the European genus Triturus. This information is used to develop a model linking evolutionary changes in satellite DNAs and chromosome structure. In this model, satellites accumulate initially in large tandem blocks around centromeres of some or all of the chromosomes, mainly by repeated chromosomal exchanges in these regions. Centromeric blocks later become broken up and dispersed by small, random chromosome rearrangements in these regions. They are dispersed first to pericentric locations and then gradually more distally into the chromosome arms and telomeres. Dispersal of a particular satellite is accompanied by changes in sequence structure (for example, base substitutions, deletions, etc.) and a corresponding decrease in its detectability at either the molecular or cytological level. On the basis of this model, observed satellites in newt species may be classified as `old', `young', or of `intermediate' phylogenetic age. The functions and effects of satellite DNA and heterochromatin at the cellular and organismal levels are also discussed. It is suggested that satellite DNA may have an impact on cell proliferation through the effect of late-replicating satellite-rich heterochromatin on the duration of S-phase of the cell cycle. It is argued that even small alterations in cell cycle time due to changes in heterochromatin amount may have magnified effects on organismal growth that may be of adaptive significance.