Recent studies on the mechanisms of normal epithelial development in the kidney, and on the aetiology of renal neoplasms, are converging to reveal remarkably close relationships between the phenotypes and behaviours of normally-developing and neoplastic cells. Normal renal epithelia arise from two sources; those of the collecting duct system develop by arborisation of an initially-unbranched ureteric bud, in a manner similar to the development of other glandular organs, while epithelial nephrons develop via an unusual mesenchyme-to-epithelial transition. Both types of development require controlled proliferation, cell-cell and cell-matrix interactions, protease activity etc., but of the two tissues, the development of the nephrons is arguably the more complex. It includes many defined stages, signals and checkpoints that ensure that events happen at the right time, and that processes such as proliferation, apoptosis and differentiation are properly balanced. Detailed investigation of renal neoplasms has revealed some to be caused by mutations in molecules with known roles in normal nephrogenesis (e.g. Wilms' tumour and the WT-1 gene, renal cell carcinoma and the c-met receptor tyrosine kinase gene), some to be caused by mutations in genes expressed during normal development (e.g. renal cell carcinoma and the TSC-2 gene, renal cell carcinoma of the clear cell variety and the VHL gene). Furthermore, these and other tumours of unknown aetiology re-express genes such as Pax-2 that are expressed during the normal mesenchyme-to-epithelium transition but are shut off during terminal differentiation. Their re-appearance in tumours suggests that the cells have 'regressed' in an ontogenic sense, and their biology may therefore be understood most clearly by reference to the properties of normal developing cells rather than cells of a mature kidney.