Alcohol is widely consumed; however, excessive use creates serious physical, psychological and social problems and contributes to the pathogenesis of many diseases. Alcohol use disorders (that is, alcohol dependence and alcohol abuse) are maladaptive patterns of excessive drinking that lead to serious problems. Abundant evidence indicates that alcohol dependence (alcoholism) is a complex genetic disease, with variations in a large number of genes affecting a person's risk of alcoholism. Some of these genes have been identified, including two genes involved in the metabolism of alcohol (ADH1B and ALDH2) that have the strongest known affects on the risk of alcoholism. Studies continue to reveal other genes in which variants affect the risk of alcoholism or related traits, including GABRA2, CHRM2, KCNJ6 and AUTS2. As more variants are analysed and studies are combined for meta-analysis to achieve increased sample sizes, an improved picture of the many genes and pathways that affect the risk of alcoholism will be possible.