The neural crest is a fascinating structure of the vertebrate embryo; its ontogeny includes a transient period during which its component cells undergo an epithelio-mesenchymal transition and become migratory. This phase was shown recently to be controlled by the 'Slug' gene which belongs to the 'Snail' family of Drosophila transcription factors. After homing to specific sites in the embryo, the crest-derived cells produce a large variety of phenotypes. Recent advances have shown that during migration most crest cells exhibit various degrees of pluripotentiality, some being already committed to a single and definite fate. Moreover, several lines of evidence point to the existence of totipotent stem cells in the neural crest, the progeny of which become progressively diversified through a combination of intrinsic and extrinsic influences. The latter have been documented by the disruption of several neurotrophin genes, which results in severe deficiencies of selected subsets of neural crest derivatives. The neural crest has also been shown to play an important role in the development of the vertebrate head and hypobranchial region. The genetic control of this process depends on the activity of developmental genes, among which the vertebrate Hox genes are essential, particularly at the rhombencephalic level.