Malaria is a devastating infectious disease that is caused by blood-borne apicomplexan parasites of the genus Plasmodium. These pathogens have a complex lifecycle, which includes development in the anopheline mosquito vector and in the liver and red blood cells of mammalian hosts, a process which takes days to weeks, depending on the Plasmodium species. Productive transmission between the mammalian host and the mosquito requires transitioning between asexual and sexual forms of the parasite. Blood- stage parasites replicate cyclically and are mostly asexual, although a small fraction of these convert into male and female sexual forms (gametocytes) in each reproductive cycle. Despite many years of investigation, the molecular processes that elicit sexual differentiation have remained largely unknown. In this Review, we highlight several important recent discoveries that have identified epigenetic factors and specific transcriptional regulators of gametocyte commitment and development, providing crucial insights into this obligate cellular differentiation process.