The primary causes of chronic kidney disease (CKD) in children differ from those of CKD in adults. In the USA the most common diagnostic groups of renal disease that manifest before the age of 25 years are congenital anomalies of the kidneys and urinary tract, steroid-resistant nephrotic syndrome, chronic glomerulonephritis and renal cystic ciliopathies, which together encompass >70% of early-onset CKD diagnoses. Findings from the past decade suggest that early-onset CKD is caused by mutations in any one of over 200 different monogenic genes. Developments in high-throughput sequencing in the past few years has rendered identification of causative mutations in this high number of genes feasible. Use of genetic analyses in patients with early onset-CKD will provide patients and their families with a molecular genetic diagnosis, generate new insights into disease mechanisms, facilitate aetiology-based classifications of patient cohorts for clinical studies, and might have consequences for personalized approaches to the prevention and treatment of CKD. In this Review, we discuss the implications of next-generation sequencing in clinical genetic diagnostics and the discovery of novel genes in early-onset CKD. We also delineate the resulting opportunities for deciphering disease mechanisms and the therapeutic implications of these findings.