The general requirement to induce mesoderm and allocate cells into different mesodermal tissues such as body muscle or heart is common in many animal embryos. Since the discovery of the twist gene, there has been great progress toward unraveling the molecular mechanisms that control mesoderm specification and differentiation. Twist was first identified in Drosophila as a gene crucial for proper gastrulation and mesoderm formation. In the fly embryo, Twist continues to play additional roles, allocating mesodermal cells into the body wall muscle fate and patterning a subset of these muscles. Twist is also required for proper differentiation of the adult musculature. Twist homologues have been identified in a great variety of organisms, which span the phylogenetic tree. These organisms include other invertebrates such as jellyfish, nematode, leech and lancelet as well as vertebrates such as frog, chick, fish, mouse and human. The Twist family shares both homology in structure across the basic helix-loop-helix domain and in expression during mesoderm and muscle development in most species. Here we review the current state of knowledge of the Twist family and consider how Twist functions during development. Moreover, we highlight experimental evidence that shows common themes that Twist employs during specification and patterning of the mesoderm among evolutionarily distant organisms. Conserved principles and the molecular mechanisms underlying them are discussed.