Congenital defects of neural tube closure (neural tube defects; NTDs) are among the commonest and most severe disorders of the fetus and newborn. Disturbance of any of the sequential events of embryonic neurulation produce NTDs, with the phenotype (eg anencephaly, spina bifida) varying depending on the region of neural tube that remains open. While mutation of > 200 genes is known to cause NTDs in mice, the pattern of occurrence in humans suggests a multifactorial polygenic or oligogenic aetiology. This emphasizes the importance of gene-gene and gene-environment interactions in the origins of these defects. A number of cell biological functions are essential for neural tube closure, with defects of the cytoskeleton, cell cycle and molecular regulation of cell viability prominent among the mouse NTD mutants. Many transcriptional regulators and proteins that affect chromatin structure are also required for neural tube closure, although the downstream molecular pathways regulated by these proteins is unknown. Some key signalling pathways for NTDs have been identified: over-activation of sonic hedgehog signalling and loss of function in the planar cell polarity (non-canonical Wnt) pathway are potent causes of NTD, with requirements also for retinoid and inositol signalling. Folic acid supplementation is an effective method for primary prevention of a proportion of NTDs in both humans and mice, although the embryonic mechanism of folate action remains unclear. Folic acid-resistant cases can be prevented by inositol supplementation in mice, raising the possibility that this could lead to an additional preventive strategy for human NTDs in future.