Genetic studies hold promise in helping to identify patients with early idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF). Recent studies using chest computed tomograms (CTs) in smokers and in the general population have demonstrated that imaging abnormalities suggestive of an early stage of pulmonary fibrosis are not uncommon and are associated with respiratory symptoms, physical examination abnormalities, and physiologic decrements expected, but less severe than those noted in patients with IPF. Similarly, recent genetic studies have demonstrated strong and replicable associations between a common promoter polymorphism in the mucin 5B gene (MUC5B) and both IPF and the presence of abnormal imaging findings in the general population. Despite these findings, it is important to note that the definition of early-stage IPF remains unclear, limited data exist to definitively connect abnormal imaging findings to IPF, and genetic studies assessing early-stage pulmonary fibrosis remain in their infancy. In this perspective we provide updated information on interstitial lung abnormalities and their connection to IPF. We summarize information on the genetics of pulmonary fibrosis by focusing on the recent genetic findings of MUC5B. Finally, we discuss the implications of these findings and suggest a roadmap for the use of genetics in the detection of early IPF.