The birth of molecular cardiology can be traced to the development and implementation of high-fidelity genetic approaches for manipulating the heart. Recombinant viral vector-based technology offers a highly effective approach to genetically engineer cardiac muscle in vitro and in vivo. This review highlights discoveries made in cardiac muscle physiology through the use of targeted viral-mediated genetic modification. Here the history of cardiac gene transfer technology and the strengths and limitations of viral and nonviral vectors for gene delivery are reviewed. A comprehensive account is given of the application of gene transfer technology for studying key cardiac muscle targets including Ca(2+) handling, the sarcomere, the cytoskeleton, and signaling molecules and their posttranslational modifications. The primary objective of this review is to provide a thorough analysis of gene transfer studies for understanding cardiac physiology in health and disease. By comparing results obtained from gene transfer with those obtained from transgenesis and biophysical and biochemical methodologies, this review provides a global view of cardiac structure-function with an eye towards future areas of research. The data presented here serve as a basis for discovery of new therapeutic targets for remediation of acquired and inherited cardiac diseases.