Abstract Background Hybrid vigor is highly valued in the agricultural industry. Male sterility is an important trait for crop breeding. Pollen development is under strict control of both gametophytic and sporophytic factors, and defects in this process can result in male sterility. Both in the dicot Arabidopsis and in the moncot rice, proper timing of programmed cell death (PCD) in the tapetum ensures pollen development. Dynamic ROS levels have been reported to control tapetal PCD, and thus pollen development, in Arabidopsis and rice. However, it was unclear whether it is evolutionarily conserved, as only those two distantly related species were studied. Results Here, we performed histological analyses of anther development of two economically important dicot species, tobacco and tomato. We identified the same ROS amplitude during anther development in these two species and found that dynamic ROS levels correlate with the initiation and progression of tapetal PCD. We further showed that manipulating ROS levels during anther development severely impaired pollen development, resulting in partial male sterility. Finally, real-time quantitative PCR showed that several tobacco and tomato RBOHs, encoding NADPH oxidases, are preferentially expressed in anthers. Conclusion This study demonstrated evolutionarily conserved ROS amplitude during anther development by examining two commercially important crop species in the Solanaceae. Manipulating ROS amplitude through genetic interference of RBOHs therefore may provide a practical way to generate male sterile plants.