A strength of two-dimensional polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis (2D PAGE) is its ability to resolve and investigate the abundance of several thousand proteins in a single sample. This enables identification of the major proteins in a tissue or subcellular fraction by mass spectrometric methods. In addition, 2D PAGE can be used to compare quantities of proteins in related samples, such as those from altered environments or from mutant and wild type, thus allowing the response of classes of proteins to be determined. Those proteins showing a correlated difference in expression may participate in related processes, and this subsequently helps to define protein function. Although there are many limitations of the 2D gel technology that mean it will never be comprehensive in protein coverage, its use for the identification of relatively abundant proteins is now widespread. However, there are still surprisingly few examples of quantitative analysis of changes in protein abundance. In this review we highlight recent advances towards true quantitative analysis of 2D gels that will lead to better prediction of protein function. Despite the development of promising alternatives, 2D PAGE is likely to remain in extensive use for the foreseeable future, because the technology is now simple and readily available to many laboratories.