Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is a genetically diverse disease. At least 15 ALS-associated gene loci have so far been identified, and the causative gene is known in approximately 30% of familial ALS cases. Less is known about the factors underlying the sporadic form of the disease. The molecular mechanisms of motor neuron degeneration are best understood in the subtype of disease caused by mutations in superoxide dismutase 1, with a current consensus that motor neuron injury is caused by a complex interplay between multiple pathogenic processes. A key recent finding is that mutated TAR DNA-binding protein 43 is a major constituent of the ubiquitinated protein inclusions in ALS, providing a possible link between the genetic mutation and the cellular pathology. New insights have also indicated the importance of dysregulated glial cell-motor neuron crosstalk, and have highlighted the vulnerability of the distal axonal compartment early in the disease course. In addition, recent studies have suggested that disordered RNA processing is likely to represent a major contributing factor to motor neuron disease. Ongoing research on the cellular pathways highlighted in this Review is predicted to open the door to new therapeutic interventions to slow disease progression in ALS.