Challenge lies ahead in unravelling the role played by trophoblast and its repertoire of expressed genes in normal human placental development, growth and pathology. Specific technical advances will clearly be required for characterisation of function. In particular, improvements in our repertoire of in vitro models are needed before many of the key questions can be answered. Recent advances in the study of human trophoblast differentiation are discussed. © 2006 IFPA and Elsevier Ltd.