Molecular imaging refers to the use of non-invasive imaging techniques to detect signals that originate from molecules, often in the form of an injected tracer, and observe their interaction with a specific cellular target in vivo. Differences in the underlying physical principles of these measurement techniques determine the sensitivity, specificity and length of possible observation of the signal, characteristics that have to be traded off according to the biological question under study. Here, we describe the specific characteristics of single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) relative to other molecular imaging technologies. SPECT is based on the tracer principle and external radiation detection. It is capable of measuring the biodistribution of minute (<10(-10) molar) concentrations of radio-labelled biomolecules in vivo with sub-millimetre resolution and quantifying the molecular kinetic processes in which they participate. Like some other imaging techniques, SPECT was originally developed for human use and was subsequently adapted for imaging small laboratory animals at high spatial resolution for basic and translational research. Its unique capabilities include (i) the ability to image endogenous ligands such as peptides and antibodies due to the relative ease of labelling these molecules with technetium or iodine, (ii) the ability to measure relatively slow kinetic processes (compared with positron emission tomography, for example) due to the long half-life of the commonly used isotopes and (iii) the ability to probe two or more molecular pathways simultaneously by detecting isotopes with different emission energies. In this paper, we review the technology developments and design tradeoffs that led to the current state-of-the-art in SPECT small animal scanning and describe the position SPECT occupies within the matrix of molecular imaging technologies.