The Msx genes of vertebrates comprise a small family of chromosomally unlinked homeobox-containing genes related to the Drosophila gene muscle-segment homeobox (msh). Despite their ancient pedigree, the Msx genes are expressed in a range of vertebrate-specific tissues, including neural crest, cranial sensory placodes, bone and teeth. They are active in numerous systems, which have been used as models to study pattern formation and tissue interaction, and are, therefore, attracting a growing interest among developmental biologists. But beyond their presumed role as transcription factors, we do not know what their functions are in the cell or the embryo. Here, I review recent evidence that is beginning to address this problem and might eventually increase our understanding of how the vertebrate embryo has evolved.