Disseminated cancer accounts for most deaths due to malignancy. Despite this, research has focused predominantly on tumour development and progression at the primary site. Recently, attention has shifted towards the field of tumour metastasis. Several new and exciting concepts that have emerged in the past few years may shed light on this complex area. The established canonical theory of tumour metastasis, as a process emerging from a stepwise accumulation of genetic events fuelled by clonal evolution, has been challenged. New evidence suggests that malignant cells can disseminate at a much earlier stage than previously recognized in tumourigenesis. These findings have direct relevance to clinical practice and shed new light on tumour biology. Gene-profiling studies support this theory, suggesting that metastatic ability may be an innate property shared by the bulk of cells present early in a developing tumour mass. There is a growing recognition of the importance of host factors outside the primary site in the development of metastatic disease. The role of the 'pre-metastatic niche' is being defined and with this comes a new understanding of the function of bone marrow-derived progenitor cells in directing the dissemination of malignant cells to distant sites. Current research has highlighted the crucial roles played by non-neoplastic host cells within the tumour microenvironment in regulating metastasis. These new concepts have wide-ranging implications for our overall understanding of tumour metastasis and for the development of cancer therapeutics.