According to the classification of Osathanondh and Potter of cystic kidneys we give an overview of the different types of cystic changes taking genetic aspects into account. Usually pathoanatomic types do not represent genetic entities: All type I kidneys are transmitted in an autosomal recessive way with varying clinical symptoms; in rare cases they even present in adults. The relationship to "congenital hepatic fibrosis", "cystic liver", and to the "Caroli syndrome" is discussed. Type II kidneys are usually not genetic in origin; but they may occur as part of several syndromes. Rarely genetic factors might contribute to type II kidneys that may present as familial cases of Potter syndrome ("renal non-function syndrome"). Type IV kidneys, although different in their pathoanatomic picture can be regarded according to a common pathogenetic theory as part of the spectrum of malformations as in type II. Therefore the genetic interpretation of type II kidneys also applies to type IV lesions. Type III kidneys include autosomal dominant polycystic kidney disease. This type may already present in childhood; the first prenatal diagnosis by ultrasonography is described in detail. Furthermore type III changes are part of syndromes or non-hereditary malformation complexes, and often present only as mild manifestations. Diseases with isolated involvement of the medulla (juvenile nephronophthisis/medullary cystic disease) or cortex are described as part of the differential diagnosis, they are heterogeneous and genetically only partly understood. Syndromes with cystic kidneys are reviewed as well as the possibilities of prenatal diagnosis of cystic diseases. Reliable prenatal diagnosis is only possible in type II, and possible in some of the other types. The nosology is improved if genetic information is taken into account.