Branching morphogenesis is a widely used strategy to increase the surface area of a given organ. A number of tissues undergo branching morphogenesis during development, including the lung, kidney, vascular system and numerous glands. Until recently, very little has been known about the genetic principles underlying the branching process and about the molecules participating in organ specification and branch formation. The tracheal system of insects represents one of the best-characterised branched organs. The tracheal network provides air to most tissues and its development during embryogenesis has been studied intensively at the morphological and genetic level. More than 30 genes have been identified and ordered into sequential steps controlling branching morphogenesis. These studies have revealed a number of important principles that might be conserved in other systems.