Although the first English-language report of melanoma in 1820 contained a description of a melanoma-prone family, it was 1983 before formal genetic analysis suggested an autosomal dominant mode of inheritance for both melanoma and the then newly described melanoma precursor, dysplastic nevi (DN). Subsequent genetic studies have assumed this model to be correct, although when viewed in aggregate, the data are inconsistent. The first proposed melanoma gene (CMM1) was mapped to chromosome 1p36. This gene assignment has not been confirmed. A second melanoma gene, designated CMM2, has been mapped to chromosome 9p21. This gene assignment has been confirmed, and the cell cycle regulator CDKN2A has been proposed as the candidate gene. Germline mutations in this gene have been identified in about 20% of melanoma-prone families that have been studied to date. Pancreatic cancer occurs excessively in melanoma families with germline mutations in CDKN2A. Germline mutations in the cyclin-dependent kinase gene CDK4 (chromosome 12q14) have been described in three melanoma families. This finding represents a third melanoma gene but one that accounts for only a tiny fraction of all hereditary melanoma. Recently, a familial melanoma-astrocytoma syndrome has been reported. Large germline deletions of 9p21 occur in these families, with the p19 gene implicated in its pathogenesis. At present, clinical predictive genetic testing for mutations in the CDKN2A gene is available commercially, but its use has been limited by uncertainty as to how test results would affect the management of melanoma-prone family members. Currently, management recommendations include monthly skin self-examination, clinical skin examination once or twice yearly, a low threshold for simple excision of changing pigmented lesions, moderation of sun exposure, and appropriate use of sunscreens. A heritable determinant for total nevus number has been suggested by twin studies. Other data suggest the presence of a major gene responsible for "total nevus density" in melanoma-prone families. Approximately 55% of the mole phenotype in multiplex melanoma families was explained by this proposed gene. An autosomal dominant mode of inheritance has been proposed for DN, and data exist to suggest that DN may be a pleiotropic manifestation of the 1p36 familial melanoma gene. However, there clearly are melanoma-prone families that do not express the dysplastic nevus trait, and some of the families linked to CDKN2A also present with dysplastic nevi. Several studies have shown a surprisingly high prevalence of DN on the skin of family members of probands with DN. In light of the extensive evidence documenting that persons with DN (both sporadic and familial) have an increased prospective risk of melanoma, these family studies suggest that relatives of persons with DN should be examined for both DN and melanoma. Genetic determinants play a major role in the pathogenesis of normal nevi, DN, and melanoma. Identifying the molecular basis of these genetic events promises to enhance melanoma risk-reduction strategies and, ultimately, reduce melanoma-associated mortality.