Cilia are surface-exposed organelles that provide motility and sensory functions for cells, and it is widely believed that mechanosensation can be mediated through cilia. Polycystin-1 and -2 (PC-1 and PC-2, respectively) are transmembrane proteins that can localize to cilia; however, the molecular mechanisms by which polycystins contribute to mechanosensation are still controversial. Studies detail two prevailing models for the molecular roles of polycystins on cilia; one stresses the mechanosensation capabilities and the other unveils their ligand–receptor nature. The discovery that polycystins interact with mastigonemes, the ‘hair-like’ protrusions of flagella, is a novel finding in identifying the interactors of polycystins in cilia. While the functions of polycystins proposed by both models may coexist in cilia, it is hoped that a precise understanding of the mechanism of action of polycystins can be achieved by uncovering their distribution and interacting factors inside cilia. This will hopefully provide a satisfying answer to the pathogenesis of autosomal dominant polycystic kidney disease (ADPKD), which is caused by mutations in PC-1 and PC-2. In this Review, we discuss the characteristics of polycystins in the context of cilia and summarize the functions of mastigonemes in unicellular ciliates. Finally, we compare flagella and molecular features of PC-2 between unicellular and multicellular organisms, with the aim of providing new insights into the ciliary roles of polycystins in general.