Over the past decade, genome-wide association studies (GWAS) have considerably improved our understanding of the genetic basis of kidney function and disease. Population-based studies, used to investigate traits that define chronic kidney disease (CKD), have identified >50 genomic regions in which common genetic variants associate with estimated glomerular filtration rate or urinary albumin-to-creatinine ratio. Case-control studies, used to study specific CKD aetiologies, have yielded risk loci for specific kidney diseases such as IgA nephropathy and membranous nephropathy. In this Review, we summarize important findings from GWAS and clinical and experimental follow-up studies. We also compare risk allele frequency, effect sizes, and specificity in GWAS of CKD-defining traits and GWAS of specific CKD aetiologies and the implications for study design. Genomic regions identified in GWAS of CKD-defining traits can contain causal genes for monogenic kidney diseases. Population-based research on kidney function traits can therefore generate insights into more severe forms of kidney diseases. Experimental follow-up studies have begun to identify causal genes and variants, which are potential therapeutic targets, and suggest mechanisms underlying the high allele frequency of causal variants. GWAS are thus a useful approach to advance knowledge in nephrology.