Autosomal dominant polycystic kidney disease (ADPKD) is a common inherited nephropathy affecting over 1:1000 of the worldwide population. It is a systemic condition with frequent hepatic and cardiovascular manifestations in addition to the progressive development of renal cysts that eventually result in loss of renal function in the majority of affected individuals. The diagnosis of ADPKD is typically made using renal imaging despite the identification of mutations in PKD1 and PKD2 that account for virtually all cases. Mutations in PKD1 are associated with more severe clinical disease and earlier onset of renal failure. Most PKD gene mutations are loss of function and a 'two-hit' mechanism has been demonstrated underlying focal cyst formation. The protein products of the PKD genes, the polycystins, form a calcium-permeable ion channel complex that regulates the cell cycle and the function of the renal primary cilium. Abnormal cilial function is now thought to be the primary defect in several types of PKD including autosomal recessive polycystic kidney disease and represents a novel and exciting mechanism underlying a range of human diseases.