Ribosome biogenesis centres both physically and functionally on the activity of the ribosomal RNA (rRNA) genes. Ribosome assembly occurs co-transcriptionally on these genes, requires the coordinated expression and assembly of many hundreds of proteins and is finely tuned to cell and organism growth. This review presents contemporary understanding of the mode and the means of rRNA gene transcription and how growth factors, oncogenes and tumour suppressors regulate this transcription. It is argued that transcription elongation is a key mechanism regulating rRNA gene transcription. This unorthodox view provides a logical framework to explain the co-transcriptional phase of ribosome biogenesis.