A combination of approaches has begun to elucidate the mechanisms of gastrointestinal development. This review describes progress over the last 20 years in understanding human gastrointestinal development, including data from both human and experimental animal studies that address molecular mechanisms. Rapid progress is being made in the identification of genes regulating gastrointestinal development. Genes directing initial formation of the endoderm as well as organ-specific patterning are beginning to be identified. Signaling pathways regulating the overall right-left asymmetry of the gastrointestinal tract and epithelial-mesenchymal interactions are being clarified. In searching for extrinsic developmental regulators, numerous candidate trophic factors have been proposed, but compelling evidence remains elusive. A critical gene that initiates pancreas development has been identified, as well as a number of genes regulating liver, stomach, and intestinal development. Mutations in genes affecting neural crest cell migration have been shown to give rise to Hirschsprung's disease. Considerable progress has been achieved in understanding specific phenomena, such as the transcription factors regulating expression of sucrase-isomaltase and fatty acid-binding protein. The challenge for the future is to integrate these data into a more complete understanding of the physiology of gastrointestinal development.