Human germ cell tumours (GCTs) comprise several types of neoplasias with different pathogeneses and clinical behaviours. A classification into five subtypes has been proposed. Here, the so-called type II testicular GCTs (TGCTs), ie the seminomas and non-seminomas, will be reviewed with emphasis on pathogenesis and clinical implications. Various risk factors have been identified that define subpopulations of men who are amenable to early diagnosis. TGCTs are omnipotent, able to generate all differentiation lineages, both embryonic and extra-embryonic, as well as the germ cell lineage itself. The precursor lesion, composed of primordial germ cells/gonocytes, is referred to as carcinoma in situ of the testis (CIS) and gonadoblastoma of the dysgenetic gonad. These pre-malignant cells retain embryonic characteristics, which probably explains the unique responsiveness of the derived tumours to DNA-damaging agents. Development of CIS and gonadoblastoma is crucially dependent on the micro-environment created by Sertoli cells in the testis, and granulosa cells in the dysgenetic gonad. OCT3/4 has high sensitivity and specificity for CIS/gonadoblastoma, seminoma, and embryonal carcinoma, and is useful for the detection of CIS cells in semen, thus a promising tool for non-invasive screening. Overdiagnosis of CIS due to germ cell maturation delay can be avoided using immunohistochemical detection of stem cell factor (SCF). Immunohistochemistry is helpful in making the distinction between seminoma and embryonal carcinoma, especially SOX17 and SOX2. The different non-seminomatous histological elements can be recognized using various markers, such as AFP and hCG, while others need confirmation. The value of micro-satellite instability as well as BRAF mutations in predicting treatment resistance needs validation in prospective trials. The availability of representative cell lines, both for seminoma and for embryonal carcinoma, allows mechanistic studies into the initiation and progression of this disease. Copyright © 2009 Pathological Society of Great Britain and Ireland. Published by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.