The placenta is a remarkable organ. In normal pregnancy its specialized cells (termed cytotrophoblasts) differentiate into various specialized subpopulations that play pivotal roles in governing fetal growth and development. One cytotrophoblast subset acquires tumor-like properties that allow the cells to invade the decidua and myometrium, a process that attaches the placenta to the uterus. The same subset also adopts a vascular phenotype that allows these fetal cells to breach and subsequently line uterine blood vessels, a process that channels maternal blood to the rest of the placenta. In the pregnancy complication preeclampsia, which is characterized by the sudden onset of maternal hypertension, proteinuria and edema, cytotrophoblast invasion is shallow and vascular transformation incomplete. These findings, together with very recent evidence from animal models, suggest that preeclampsia is associated with abnormal placental production of vasculogenic/angiogenic substances that reach the maternal circulation with the potential to produce at least a subset of the clinical signs of this syndrome. The current challenge is to build on this knowledge to design clinically useful tests for predicting, diagnosing and treating this dangerous disorder.