The segmental somites not only determine the vertebrate body plan, but also represent turntables of cell fates. The somite is initially naive in terms of its fate restriction as shown by grafting and rotation experiments whereby ectopically grafted or rotated tissue of newly formed somites yielded the same pattern of normal derivatives. Somitic derivatives are determined by local signalling between adjacent embryonic tissues, in particular the neural tube, notochord, surface ectoderm and the somitic compartments themselves. The correct spatio-temporal specification of the deriving tissues, skeletal muscle, cartilage, endothelia and connective tissue is achieved by a sequence of morphogenetic changes of the paraxial mesoderm, eventually leading to the three transitory somitic compartments: dermomyotome, myotome and sclerotome. These structures are specified along a double gradient from dorsal to ventral and from medial to lateral. The establishment and controlled disruption of the epithelial state of the somitic compartments are crucial for development. In this article, we give a synopsis of some of the most important signalling events involved in somite patterning and cell fate decisions. Particular emphasis has been laid on the issue of epithelio-mesenchymal transition and different types of cell division in the somite.