Epigenetic phenomena in animals and plants are mediated by DNA methylation and stable chromatin modifications. There has been considerable interest in whether environmental factors modulate the establishment and maintenance of epigenetic modifications, and could thereby influence gene expression and phenotype. Chemical pollutants, dietary components, temperature changes and other external stresses can indeed have long-lasting effects on development, metabolism and health, sometimes even in subsequent generations. Although the underlying mechanisms remain largely unknown, particularly in humans, mechanistic insights are emerging from experimental model systems. These have implications for structuring future research and understanding disease and development.