Through studies of transgenic and mutant mice, it is possible to describe molecular pathways that control the development of all major trophoblast cell subtypes and structures of the placenta. For example, the proliferation of trophoblast stem cells is dependent on FGF signalling and downstream transcription factors Cdx2, Eomes and Err2. Several bHLH transcription factors regulate the progression from trophoblast stem cells to spongiotrophoblast and to trophoblast giant cells (Id1/2, Mash2, Hand1, Stra13). Intercellular actions critical for maintaining stable precursor cell populations are dependent on the gap junction protein Cx31 and the growth factor Nodal. Differentiation towards syncytiotrophoblast as well as the initiation of chorioallantoic (villous) morphogenesis is regulated by the Gcm1 transcription factor, and subsequent labyrinth development is dependent on Wnt, HGF and FGF signalling. These insights suggest that most of the genes that evolved to regulate placental development are either identical to ones used in other organ systems (e.g., FGF and epithelial branching morphogenesis), were co-opted to take on new functions (e.g., AP-2gamma, Dlx3, Hand1), or arose via gene duplication to take on a specialized placental function (e.g., Gcm1, Mash2). Many of the human orthologues of these critical genes show restricted expression patterns that are consistent with a conserved function. Such information is aiding the comparison of the human and mouse placenta. In addition, the prospect of a conserved function clearly suggests potential mechanisms for explaining complications of human placental development.