Most mammalian cell types have the potential to assemble at least one cilium. Immotile cilia participate in numerous sensing processes, while motile cilia are involved in cell motility and movement of extracellular fluid. The functional importance of cilia and flagella is highlighted by the growing list of diseases due to cilia defects. These ciliopathies are marked by an amazing diversity of clinical manifestations and an often complex genetic aetiology. To understand these pathologies, a precise comprehension of the biology of cilia and flagella is required. These organelles are remarkably well conserved throughout eukaryotic evolution. In this review, we describe the strengths of various model organisms to decipher diverse aspects of cilia and flagella biology: molecular composition, mode of assembly, sensing and motility mechanisms and functions. Pioneering studies carried out in the green alga Chlamydomonas established the link between cilia and several genetic diseases. Moreover, multicellular organisms such as mouse, zebrafish, Xenopus, Caenorhabditis elegans or Drosophila, and protists such as Paramecium, Tetrahymena and Trypanosoma or Leishmania each bring specific advantages to the study of cilium biology. For example, the function of genes involved in primary ciliary dyskinesia (due to defects in ciliary motility) can be efficiently assessed in trypanosomes.