Root system development is an important agronomic trait. The right architecture in a given environment allows plants to survive periods of water of nutrient deficit, and compete effectively for resources. Root systems also provide an optimal system for studying developmental plasticity, a characteristic feature of plant growth. This review proposes a framework for describing the pathways regulating the development of complex structures such as root systems: intrinsic pathways determine the characteristic architecture of the root system in a given plant species, and define the limits for plasticity in that species. Response pathways co-ordinate environmental cues with development by modulating intrinsic pathways. The current literature describing the regulation of root system development is summarized here within this framework. Regulatory pathways are also organized based on their specific developmental effect in the root system. All the pathways affect lateral root formation, but some specifically target initiation of the lateral root, while others target the development and activation of the lateral root primordium, or the elongation of the lateral root. Finally, we discuss emerging approaches for understanding the regulation of root system architecture.