Pectin is a family of complex polysaccharides present in all plant primary cell walls. The complicated structure of the pectic polysaccharides, and the retention by plants of the large number of genes required to synthesize pectin, suggests that pectins have multiple functions in plant growth and development. In this review we summarize the current level of understanding of pectin primary and tertiary structure, and describe new methods that may be useful to study localized pectin structure in the plant cell wall. We also discuss progress in our understanding of how pectin is biosynthesized and review the biological activities and possible modes of action of pectic oligosaccharides referred to as oligogalacturonides. We present our view of critical questions regarding pectin structure, biosynthesis, and function that need to be addressed in the coming decade. As the plant community works towards understanding the functions of the tens of thousands of genes expressed by plants, a large number of those genes are likely to be involved in the synthesis, turnover, biological activity, and restructuring of pectin. A combination of genetic, molecular, biochemical and chemical approaches will be necessary to fully understand the function and biosynthesis of pectin.