Cell walls are dynamic structures that represent key determinants of overall plant form, plant growth and development, and the responses of plants to environmental and pathogen-induced stresses. Walls play centrally important roles in the quality and processing of plant-based foods for both human and animal consumption, and in the production of fibres during pulp and paper manufacture. In the future, wall material that constitutes the major proportion of cereal straws and other crop residues will find increasing application as a source of renewable fuel and composite manufacture. Although the chemical structures of most wall constituents have been defined in detail, the enzymes involved in their synthesis and remodelling remain largely undefined, particularly those involved in polysaccharide biosynthesis. There have been real recent advances in our understanding of cellulose biosynthesis in plants, but, with few exceptions, the identities and modes of action of polysaccharide synthases and other glycosyltransferases that mediate the biosynthesis of the major non-cellulosic wall polysaccharides are not known. Nevertheless, emerging functional genomics and molecular genetics technologies are now allowing us to re-examine the central questions related to wall biosynthesis. The availability of the rice, Populus trichocarpa and Arabidopsis genome sequences, a variety of mutant populations, high-density genetic maps for cereals and other industrially important plants, high-throughput genome and transcript analysis systems, extensive publicly available genomics resources and an increasing armoury of analysis systems for the definition of candidate gene function will together allow us to take a systems approach to the description of wall biosynthesis in plants.