Certain morphological, physiological and molecular characteristics are shared by all neurons. However, despite these similarities, neurons constitute the most diverse cell population of any organism. Recently, considerable attention has been focused on identifying the molecular mechanisms that underlie this cellular diversity. Parallel studies in Drosophila and vertebrates have revealed that proneural genes are key regulators of neurogenesis, coordinating the acquisition of a generic neuronal fate and of specific subtype identities that are appropriate for the location and time of neuronal generation. These studies reveal that, in spite of differences between invertebrate and vertebrate neural lineages, Drosophila and vertebrate proneural genes have remarkably similar roles.