Background Bacteria of the genus Rhodococcus are well known for their ability to degrade a large range of organic compounds. Some rhodococci are free-living, saprophytic bacteria; others are animal and plant pathogens. Recently, several studies have shown that their genomes encode putative pathways for the synthesis of a large number of specialized metabolites that are likely to be involved in microbe-microbe and host-microbe interactions. To systematically explore the specialized metabolic potential of this genus, we here performed a comprehensive analysis of the biosynthetic coding capacity across publicly available rhododoccal genomes, and compared these with those of several Mycobacterium strains as well as that of their mutual close relative Amycolicicoccus subflavus. Results Comparative genomic analysis shows that most predicted biosynthetic gene cluster families in these strains are clade-specific and lack any homology with gene clusters encoding the production of known natural products. Interestingly, many of these clusters appear to encode the biosynthesis of lipopeptides, which may play key roles in the diverse environments were rhodococci thrive, by acting as biosurfactants, pathogenicity factors or antimicrobials. We also identified several gene cluster families that are universally shared among all three genera, which therefore may have a more â€˜primaryâ€™ role in their physiology. Inactivation of these clusters by mutagenesis might help to generate weaker strains that can be used as live vaccines. Conclusions The genus Rhodococcus thus provides an interesting target for natural product discovery, in view of its large and mostly uncharacterized biosynthetic repertoire, its relatively fast growth and the availability of effective genetic tools for its genomic modification.