In recent years developmental biology has contributed a great deal to cancer research. This is in part because both fields address the question of how genes control the three-dimensional organisation of tissues, and how mutation of genes alters this. But also in recent years, the discovery that signalling pathways are conserved from worms to man, combined with the power of developmental biology's model organisms, principally Drosophila and C. elegans, to reveal signalling pathways that control tissue growth and organisation, has had a huge impact. Examples of this are the subject of the reviews in this issue, including the EGF-receptor, Wnt/APC/catenin, TGF-beta/Smad and hedgehog/patched/smoothened pathways, all of which were discovered and/or pieced together in model organisms, and all of which are disrupted by mutation in human cancer. Other topics considered are the control and execution of apoptosis; the search for tumour-suppressor-like genes in Drosophila; and genes of the Polycomb and Trithorax Groups that regulate the commitment of cells to patterns of differentiation, and that are among the targets for chromosome translocations. These stories illustrate how developmental biology has shown that there are many more signalling pathways relevant to neoplasia than the receptor tyrosine kinase pathways that first dominated the field; and that the signalling is more than just mitogenic or anti-mitogenic, and should be viewed as providing cells with information about their position and neighbours, that determines their role, differentiation and behaviour.