Tracheary elements (TEs) are cells in the xylem that are highly specialized for transporting water and solutes up the plant. TEs undergo a very well-defined process of differentiation that involves specification, enlargement, patterned cell wall deposition, programmed cell death and cell wall removal. This process is coordinated such that adjacent TEs are joined together to form a continuous network. Expression studies on model systems as diverse as trees and cell cultures have contributed to providing a flood of candidate genes with potential roles in TE differentiation. Analysis of some of these genes has yielded important information on processes such as patterned secondary cell wall deposition. The current challenge is to continue this functional analysis and to use these data and build an integrated model of TE development.