Glomerular podocytes are highly specialized cells with a complex cytoarchitecture. Their most prominent features are interdigitated foot processes with filtration slits in between. These are bridged by the slit diaphragm, which plays a major role in establishing the selective permeability of the glomerular filtration barrier. Injury to podocytes leads to proteinuria, a hallmark of most glomerular diseases. New technical approaches have led to a considerable increase in our understanding of podocyte biology including protein inventory, composition and arrangement of the cytoskeleton, receptor equipment, and signaling pathways involved in the control of ultrafiltration. Moreover, disturbances of podocyte architecture resulting in the retraction of foot processes and proteinuria appear to be a common theme in the progression of acquired glomerular disease. In hereditary nephrotic syndromes identified over the last 2 years, all mutated gene products were localized in podocytes. This review integrates our recent physiological and molecular understanding of the role of podocytes during the maintenance and failure of the glomerular filtration barrier.