Prolactin (PRL), synthesized by the anterior pituitary and to a lesser extent by numerous extrapituitary tissues, affects more physiological processes than all other pituitary hormones combined. This hormone is involved in > 300 separate effects in various vertebrate species where its role has been well documented. The initial step in its action is the binding to a specific membrane receptor which belongs to the superfamily of class 1 cytokine receptors. The function of this receptor is mediated, at least in part, by two families of signaling molecules: Janus kinases and signal transducers and activators of transcription. PRL-binding sites have been identified in a number of cells and tissues of adult animals. Disruption of the gene for the PRL receptor has provided a new animal model with which to better understand the actions of PRL on mammary morphogenesis and mammary gland gene expression. The recent availability of genetic mouse models provides new insights into mammary developmental biology and how the action of a hormone at specific stages of development can have effects later in life on processes such as mammary development and breast cancer initiation and progression.