Acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL) is characterized by the expansion of malignant myeloid cells blocked at the promyelocytic stage of hemopoietic development, and is associated with reciprocal chromosomal translocations always involving the retinoic acid receptor alpha (RARalpha) gene on chromosome 17. As a consequence of the translocation RARalpha variably fuses to the PML, PLZF, NPM and NUMA genes (X genes), leading to the generation of RARalpha-X and X-RARalpha fusion genes. The aberrant chimeric proteins encoded by these genes may exert a crucial role in leukemogenesis. Retinoic acid (RA), a metabolite of vitamin A, can overcome the block of maturation at the promyelocytic stage and induce the malignant cells to terminally mature into granulocytes resulting in complete albeit transient disease remission. APL has become, for this reason, the paradigm for 'cancer differentiation therapy'. Furthermore, APL associated with translocation between the RARalpha and the PLZF genes (PLZF-RARalpha) shows a distinctly worse prognosis with poor response to chemotherapy and little or no response to treatment with RA, thus defining a new APL syndrome. Here we will focus our attention on the recent progresses made in defining the molecular mechanisms underlying the pathogenesis of this paradigmatic disease in vivo in the mouse. We will review the critical contribution of mouse modeling in unraveling the transcriptional basis for the differential response to RA in APL. We will also discuss how this new understanding has allowed to propose, develop and test in these murine leukemia models as well as in human APL patients novel therapeutic strategies.