In recent years major progress has been made in understanding the role of transcription factors in the development of the endocrine pancreas in the mouse. Here we describe how a number of these transcription factors play a role in maintaining the differentiated phenotype of the beta cell, and in the mechanisms that allow the beta cell to adapt to changing metabolic demands that occur throughout life. Amongst these factors, Pdx1 plays a critical role in defining the region of the primitive gut that will form the pancreas, Ngn3 expression drives cells towards an endocrine lineage, and a number of additional proteins including Pdx1, in a second wave of expression, Pax4, NeuroD1/beta2, and MafA act as beta cell differentiation factors. In the mature beta cell Pdx1, MafA, beta2, and Nkx2.2 play important roles in regulating expression of insulin and to some extent other genes responsible for maintaining beta cell function. We emphasise here that data from gene expression studies in rodents seldom map on to the known structure of the corresponding human promoters. In the adult the beta cell is particularly susceptible to autoimmune-mediated attack and to the toxic metabolic milieu associated with over-eating, and utilises a number of these transcription factors in its defence. Pdx1 has anti-apoptotic and proliferative activities that help facilitate the maintenance of beta cell mass, while Ngn3 may be involved in the recruitment of progenitor cells, and Pax4 (and possibly HNF1alpha and Hnf4alpha) in the proliferation of beta cells in the adult pancreas. Other transcription factors with a more widespread pattern of expression that play a role in beta cell survival or proliferation include Foxo1, CREB family members, NFAT, FoxM1, Snail and Asc-2.