Abstract Smooth muscle cells (SMC) make up the muscular portion of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract from the distal oesophagus to the internal anal sphincter. Coordinated contractions of these cells produce the motor patterns of GI motility. Considerable progress was made during the last 20 years to understand the basic mechanisms controlling excitation-contraction (E-C) coupling. The smooth muscle motor is now understood in great molecular detail, and much has been learned about the mechanisms that deliver and recover Ca2+ during contractions. The majority of Ca2+ that initiates contractions comes from the external solution and is supplied by voltage-dependent Ca2+ channels (VDCC). VDCC are regulated largely by the effects of K+ and non-selective cation conductances (NSCC) on cell membrane potential and excitability. Ca2+ entry is supplemented by release of Ca2+ from IP3 receptor-operated stores and by mechanisms that alter the sensitivity of the contractile apparatus to changes in cytoplasmic Ca2+. Molecular studies of the regulation of smooth muscle have been complicated by the plasticity of SMC and difficulties in culturing these cells without dramatic phenotypic changes. Major questions remain to be resolved regarding the details of E-C coupling in human GI smooth muscles. New discoveries regarding molecular expression that give GI smooth muscle their unique properties, the phenotypic changes that occur in SMC in GI motor disorders, tissue engineering approaches to repair or replace defective muscular regions, and molecular manipulations of GI smooth muscles in animals models and in cell culture will be topics for exciting investigations in the future.