The vertebrate head is an extremely complicated structure: development of the head requires tissue-tissue interactions between derivates of all the germ layers and coordinated morphogenetic movements in three dimensions. In this review, we highlight a number of recent embryological studies, using chicken, frog, zebrafish and mouse, which have identified crucial signaling centers in the embryonic face. These studies demonstrate how small variations in growth factor signaling can lead to a diversity of phenotypic outcomes. We also discuss novel genetic studies, in human, mouse and zebrafish, which describe cell biological mechanisms fundamental to the growth and morphogenesis of the craniofacial skeleton. Together, these findings underscore the complex interactions leading to species-specific morphology. These and future studies will improve our understanding of the genetic and environmental influences underlying human craniofacial anomalies. (C) 2009 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.