This paper reviews the literature on the importance of genetic influences in the development of alcohol abuse and dependence (alcoholism). The alcohol use disorders are fairly typical of most complex genetic conditions in that multiple genetic influences combine together to explain approximately 40% to 60% of the risk. One useful approach for identifying specific genes related to alcoholism involves identifying a population in which known genetic factors are controlled and using genome scan and/or case-control, association approaches to search for specific genes. Several characteristics, or endophenotypes, have been identified as both genetically influenced and contributing toward the risk for alcoholism, including alcohol-metabolizing enzymes, the low level of response to alcohol, and electrophysiological measures. The potential importance of each of these characteristics is reviewed, and data relating to the search for specific genetic material for each endophenotype are presented. These findings are placed in the perspective of the impact that they are likely to have on both prevention and treatment efforts in the alcohol field.